Monday, 16 July 2018

Edge-Lit 7, Derby, 14th July 2018

After the Sat-Nav seemed to find me yet another route into Derby (I swear, every time I go to Edge-Lit, the journey is subtly different each time), I pulled into the Assembly Rooms car park and thought it was shut.  Turns out they have a new entrance system that looks, at first glance, like the place has been boarded up - I was happy to discover as the day went on I wasn't the only one who'd been confused.
At the Crusty table - from left, Ross Warren, Steve Harris, John Travis, me, Blaize Harris (seated), Peter Mark May, Lisa Childs, Terry Grimwood, Dale Winton-Polak
Into the Quad, I joined the queue to sign in and immediately saw Phil Sloman and Ben Jones, caught up with them, got my goodie bag and lanyard, then bumped into John Travis.  Phil and Ben went to a panel, John & I got a drink then headed outside where The Crusty Exterior had secured a table overlooking the square.  Tony Cowin was sitting at the next table by himself, worrying about the launch of In Dog We Trust so we did what all true friends would do and just wound him up further, saying he’d have to do a speech and we couldn’t be guaranteed not to heckle - I’m not sure we helped.  On our table, I worked my way around saying hello to Ross Warren, Steve & Blaize Harris, Peter Mark May, Lisa Childs (with extra congratulations on her becoming a (very young, we thought) grandmother), Terry Grimwood and Dion Winton-Polak - we caught up, chatted and checked the programme, planning our day.
With Andrew David Barker (centre) and Kevin Redfern
People came and went, Andrew Freudenberg and Duncan Bradshaw joined the table, different conversations struck up.  Pixie joined the smokers section of Ben and Lisa and I finally got my Pixie hug, a mainstay of Edge-Lit.  As we'd decided to eat at the Quad rather than go out I went through to the bar and discovered they didn’t have their wonderful club sandwich on the menu, so opted for the Cob Burger option instead.  I met Paul Kane in the queue and James Everington came through, having just finished on his panel and introduced me to Dan Howarth.  CC Adams was at a table so I said hello to him and caught up with Kevin White, a redshirt on the front desk who I’d struck up an email conversation with after Sledge-Lit, Tracy Fahey breezed by with a quick hello and a nice hug and I didn’t see her again for the rest of day, Georgina Bruce and I got to catch up quickly and I complimented her on her fantastic hair, Andrew Hook walked by for a quick handshake - lots of great people all over the place.  As I headed back to our table, I saw Kevin Redfern and since we never seem to get to chat, I stopped for just that.  Within moments, Andrew David Barker turned up and we fell into a conversation about writing, films and filming that was hugely enjoyable.  My lunch turned up so I followed the waitress back to our table to claim it - the bucket of fries was lovely, the burger was very bland.

Phil Sloman (left) and me, some of the sexiest legs in horror whatever
Jim Mcleod might have to say...
As we ate and chatted, Simon Kurt Unsworth and Rosie Seymour wandered by in search of food and it was nice to see them again.  All too soon it was time for a still-worried-looking Tony to head up to the Black Shuck Books launch and I followed him.  Steve J. Shaw was launching four titles - More Monsters by Paul Kane, The Martledge Variations by Simon, Madame Morte edited by the wonderful Pixie and In Dog We Trust (which features my story Chihuahua, as I wrote about here) from Tony.  I sat on the front row - as that was the writers line - next to Phil and we compared our ‘best legs in horror fiction’, said hello to Ray Cluley & Jess Jordan before a late-coming Kit Power arrived and sat next to me (he’s not in any of the titles, but didn’t realise so we adopted him).  Tony had to do a speech and talked about fearsome dogs in fiction - for some reason, he name-checked Scrappy Doo so Phil & I got to heckle, which was good fun.  The launch over, I signed some books (Ray was doing a dog doodle as part of his signature, I doodled in one book Snoopy lying on top of his kennel) and then, with Ross, had a chat with Simon Bestwick & Cate Gardner that covered a whole range of subjects.  Priya Sharma appeared for hugs and promises to catch up later and I compared agency submission notes with Penny Jones (and her newly blue-tinged hair).  Ross went back to the bar and I called into the dealer’s room, bumped into Danie Ware on the way, had a quick chat and she gave me a sticker for her new book, which was being launched later.  Said hello to Adele Wearing who was manning the Fox Spirit stall and finally bought Tracy’s The Girl In The Fort, then found the Black Shuck stall which Yvonne Davies and her daughter Megan were looking after.  Chatted with them, bought Phil’s collection Broken On The Inside then Charlotte Bond came over for a chat and gave me a gingerbread mouse, which was lovely.  I ate it while I was in James’ 2pm panel, 'Creating Suspense and fear in your fiction', which included Paul Tremblay among its great line-up.  Also in the audience were my fine friends from Writers, Neil & Donna Bond and Kathy Boulton was sitting with them, so I got to say hello to her too (still didn't get a picture though).
At the Black Shuck launch with Phil Sloman, Jess Jordan and James Everington.  Jess had just recruited us willingly into the Stephen Bacon fan club...
Back to the bar and the Crusty table.  I chatted plays and acting with Terry, Andrew came over with Dan, Jay arrived - Selina had unfortunately already left, so I didn’t get to see her - as did Donna.  Hayley Orgill and Kevin joined us then Simon Clark, always good company, did and we chatted with Peter, talking as the sun warmed up our area of the patio until the 5pm Guest Of Honour interview, which Marie O’Regan conducted with Paul Tremblay.  I went with Andrew, Peter, Jay and Donna and there weren’t anywhere near as many people as I’d expected which was a shame because Paul is a great speaker and the hour whizzed by.  It whizzed by quicker for Peter, Jay and Donna, who all seemed to nod off at different times (to be fair, it was warm and they were very comfortable seats).
With Peter and Simon Clark
Joined by Ross and Lisa, we stayed on for the raffle, which is often enjoyable but the presenting duo tried to emulate Sarah Pinborough’s irreverence and fell somewhat short - and I didn't win anything (though, in a shocking turn-up for the books, neither did Ross).  As that finished, it marked the end of the Con for us and Andrew said goodbye and headed off.  Peter, Ross, Lisa & I made our way downstairs to find Tim Major already there waiting for us.  I shook his hand and caught up, Priya came over for a chat, we said goodbye to Pixie, grabbed John and Simon and made our way over to Ask Italian (James was with some people from Titan so came over later).  At the restaurant, the lady took in our “table for 8” request without blinking and put us downstairs where there was space for twice as many.  James turned up just after we’d ordered, with Ray & Jess in tow and we had a fine old time, chatting, eating and laughing, the perfect end to the day.  Peter left first, to catch his train, then Simon took off so we chatted for a while longer, got the bill then said our goodbyes outside, as Jess, Ray and John went back to the Quad, the rest of us to the car park.
In Ask Italian - from left, me, Ross, Jess, Ray Cluley, James, Tim Major, John, Simon, Peter (Lisa was out on a smoke break)
Another great Con (superb work by Alex Davis, Pixie and the whole redshirt team), another great day spent in the company of fine friends and writers and another burst of wonderful creative energy, soaking up the buzz.  Roll on FCon!

Monday, 9 July 2018


I'm pleased to announce that In Dog We Trust  edited by Anthony Cowin (to raise money for Birmingham Dogs Home) will be published by Black Shuck Books and launched at Edge-Lit 7 on Saturday 14th July.  It contains my short story Chihuahua, a nasty little tale about a dog attack on an out-of-the-way petrol station in the West Country.

Foreword, by Emma Green

Introduction, by Anthony Cowin

Painted Wolves, by Ray Cluley

Man’s Best Friend, by Gary Fry

I Love you Mary-Grace, by Amelia Mangan

Leader of the Pack, by Willie Meikle

Hikikomori, by Adam Millard

Good Girl, by Steven Chapman

Queen Bitch, by Lily Childs

Chihuahua, by Mark West

Burger Van, by Michael Bray

Mulligan Street, by David T Griffith

A Dog Is for Death, by Phil Sloman

and will be available from Amazon after the launch

I was approached by Anthony in January 2015 and agreed to get involved, though I didn't have the first idea of what to write.  In April, the original publisher Theresa Derwin emailed and copied in the guidelines - reading them again, one line sparked something for me; "And maybe there are pet shops, dog pounds and family homes all on the brink of bloody horror."  What if, I mused, there were people in a building, trapped by the start of the dog problem.  What if they were in a petrol station?  And that was it.  It's taken a while to get here but I'm confident - Steve Shaw is a great publisher and it's a cracking line-up of writers too.

The story has a very small cast.  Ben is travelling to Plymouth from Bristol and long periods in traffic jams mean he needs to refuel.  He pulls over at a run-down independent petrol station next to the town of Trenton (fans of Cujo might like that), where he meets Freddy (the kid behind the counter) and Trisha (who keeps having her card refused by the machine).  When an old couple drive onto the forecourt and a Chihuahua walks across to them, things quickly turn bad.  Very bad indeed.

Although the houses were less than a couple of hundred yards away, [Ben] couldn’t hear anything other than some dogs barking.  At this point in the evening he’d expect to hear lawn mowers or kids playing, perhaps music or the chatter of friends at a barbecue, but there was nothing.  He looked at the shop, which had a row of dumpbins in front of it - firewood, charcoal briquettes, screenwash - and a stand holding two fire extinguishers.  The station seemed to have been lifted whole from the middle of the eighties.  When the pump clicked, he replaced the nozzle and fuel cap, peeled off his gloves and locked the car.
     As he walked to the shop he could hear a steady growling from behind it, like a very pissed-off dog was defending his territory.  The growling got louder the closer to the door he got and he was glad to push through it into the air-conditioned interior.
     A young woman, in low-cut jeans, a skinny t-shirt and bright pink flip-flops was standing at the counter.  She had long blonde hair that fell to the middle of her back, secured just above her shoulders in a scrunchy.  The kid behind the counter looked even younger, tall and gangly with a shock of curly brown hair and a rash of pimples across his forehead.  He wore an Iron Maiden t-shirt under his ‘Trenton Services’ hoodie.
     The shop needed a refit.  The shelving on the central island was old and battered, the items on it priced with little stickers.  The shelves on the wall to his right were filled with maps, newspapers and magazines and no attempt had been made to cover the covers of the top-ones.  Three sun-bleached fridges stood along the back wall, advertising Coke and Pepsi.  Two were filled with drinks, another with milk, sausage rolls and cold cuts of meat.  Ben took out a bottle of water, checked to make sure it was in date and walked to the counter.  The girl seemed to be having trouble with her credit card.
     “I swear that’s the pin number.”
     "Hey,” said the kid behind the counter, “no problem.”
    “There is Freddy, because if this doesn’t work I haven’t got any cash on me.”
    “Trish, relax, we can sort it out.”
     Ben smiled and wondered how long Freddy had had his crush on Trish and whether she knew.  Trish then favoured Freddy with such a bright, winning smile that Ben knew she was very much aware of it.
     Freddy glanced at him.  “Be with you in a minute, mate.”
    Trish turned her head and gave him her dazzling smile.  “Sorry, the machine won’t take my card.”
    "Don’t worry,” said Ben with a smile.  He leaned against the counter and, in the quiet, thought he could hear the dog barking again.  He wondered if Freddy had it in the back as a security measure.
     Movement caught his eye and he looked towards the road as a Volvo pulled onto the forecourt, parking on the other side of the pump that Trish’s KA was parked at.
     “If it doesn’t take it this time, I’ll go and get my Dad,” said Freddy, “he might be able to sort it.  He was only nipping out the back to get some fuel oil, I’m supposed to be heading into town.”

Monday, 2 July 2018

Happy birthday, Debbie Harry (an appreciation)

As this year marks the 40th anniversary of Blondie’s commercial breakthrough album Parallel Lines, I thought it’d be a good time to write an appreciation to celebrate Debbie Harry’s 73rd birthday.
Outside CBGB's, 1975
Debbie in Wind In The Willows
Deborah Ann Harry was born Angela Tremble on 1st July 1945 in Miami, Florida and adopted at three months old by Richard Smith and Catherine Harry, who ran a gift shop in Hawthorne, New Jersey.  As a child, she daydreamed that Marilyn Monroe was her real mother and began dying her hair at twelve, experimenting with violet before settling on blonde.  She was, she told a reporter, “making a statement.  I was extraordinary looking, but a lot of people thought I was in a different world than I was.  My inside world was a lot different from my outside world.”  She attended Hawthorne High School and graduated from Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, with an Associate of Arts degree in 1965.  Moving to New York, she sang with the band Wind In The Willows and worked as a Playboy Bunny, before waitressing at Max’s Kansas City, a popular club that was part of the downtown art and music scene.

In 1974, she joined The Stilettos, with Elda Gentile and Amanda Jones, her future collaborator Chris Stein joined shortly afterwards.  Around this time, she claims she was lured into a car being driven by serial killer Ted Bundy but managed to get away before he could drive off.  Debbie and Stein left The Stilettos, briefly formed Angel and the Snake and then, romantically involved, started the band that would eventually become known as Blondie.
The original Blondie line-up in 1976 (from left) - Gary Valentine, Clem Burke, Debbie, Chris Stein
Blondie, named for what men often called Debbie, began playing clubs in downtown New York, becoming regulars at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.  Their debut album, Blondie, was released by Private Stock Records in December 1976, becoming a minor hit in Australia.  Their second album, Plastic Letters, was released in February 1978 and promoted heavily in Europe, peaking at number 10 the UK, with the lead single Denis, reaching number 2 on the UK charts.  A successful UK tour in 1978 saw them gain popularity which led into their third album, Parallel Lines, released in September by Chrysalis Records.  Produced by Mike Chapman, it was a number 1 hit in the UK, number 2 in Australia and number 6 in the US and the fourth single, Heart Of Glass, broke them worldwide, becoming one of the biggest singles of 1979.  Their fourth album, Eat To The Beat, was released that October and was a UK number 1 but not as successful, though a video was made for each song, making it the first ever video album.  In 1980, they released the single Call Me, which was a number 1 hit in the UK, US and Canada.  Their fifth album, Autoamerican, was released in November 1980 and included Rapture, the first song featuring rapping to reach number 1 in the US (the band were friends with hip hop and graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy).

Debbie in the studio with Nile Rodgers
Blondie took a year-long hitatus in 1981, during which Debbie released her first solo album (Koo Koo, produced by Nile Rodgers), before regrouping and releasing their sixth album The Hunter in 1982.  It wasn’t as successful as the others and a planned world tour was cut short due to low ticket sales, two major factors - along with internal struggles - that caused the band to split.

In 1983, Chris Stein was diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris, a rare autoimmune disease that affects the skin and mucous membranes and Debbie took several years off to care for him.  Their relationship broke up in the late 80s but they continued to work together.
Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, 1982
She released a second solo album, Rockbird (which is fantastic - I love the title track but the biggest hit, reaching number 8 in the UK charts, was French Kissing In The USA) in 1986 and her third, Def, Dumb & Blonde in 1989.  As a solo act, she toured extensively from 1989 to 1991 with Chris Stein and I managed to see her supporting INXS at Wembley Stadium in July (which I wrote about here).  Her fourth album, Debravation, was released in 1993 - it marked the end of her relationship with Chrysalis Records - and Necessary Evil, the fifth, was released in 2007.
She joined The Jazz Passengers as lead vocalist for their 1997 album Individually Twisted and, in the same year, reunited with her Blondie colleagues for a European tour.  Their first album in 15 years, No Exit, was released in 1999 and the single Maria was a number 1 hit in 14 different countries, including the UK.  The band, as well as releasing a further three albums, have continued to tour and in 2014 played Glastonbury.  They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
Punk survivors - Debbie and Iggy Pop, photographed as part of the 2015 Paco Rabanne campaign
Alongside her work with Blondie, Debbie also appeared in films such as Union City (1980) and the excellent Videodrome (1983 - which I wrote about here), as well as Forever Lulu (1987), Hairspray (1988), Heavy (1995) and Copland (1997).
With James Woods in the excellent Videodrome (1983)
VH1 voted her 12th in their 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll poll in 1999 and named her 18th in the 100 Sexiest Artists Of All Time in 2002.  A strong advocate for gay rights and same-sex marriage, she is also a fundraiser for charities concerned with fighting cancer and endometriosis.
On the loft roof, 1977
“I was hugely influenced by Debbie Harry when I started out as a singer and songwriter. I thought she was the coolest chick in the universe.”
 - Madonna

Shirley Manson, of Garbage, told Pop Matters, "I have the most immense respect for and love for [her] - for so many different reasons, but most of all because she’s an incredible person and an amazing woman. She’s incredibly generous to all other young artist who have followed in her wake, and there have been so many of us. She has never treated anyone with jealousy or with any kind of superiority. She’s just a gorgeous creature, who deserves to be remembered.”
The Queens of punk and new wave, Hyde Park Hotel 1980 (photo by Chris Stein)
Debbie, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde, Poly Styrene, Pauline Black
"The idea was to be desirable, feminine, and vulnerable, but a resilient, tenacious wit...rather than a poor female, sapped of her strength by [some] hearthrob..."
- Debbie Harry, interviewed by Victor Bokris for Making Tracks

“Iconic? I guess so. But the word 'iconic' is used too frequently–an icon is a statue carved in wood. It was shocking at first, when I got that reference. It was a responsibility, and it's impossible to live up to - you're supposed to be dead, for one thing.”
 - Debbie Harry
Part of the Parallel Lines promotional materials, I had this poster on my bedroom wall for years as I was growing up
Debbie Harry was, in my impressionable youth, one of my earliest crushes and I fell in love with both her and her music.  I wasn't old enough - or lucky enough - to catch Blondie live in their heyday but I’ve now seen her three times in concert and each one was a real treat.  In the 70s, with her hair, high cheekbones and effortless cool (along with that wonderful air of studied indifference), she was a star and, as far as I’m concerned, she absolutely remains one.

Happy birthday Debbie!

Monday, 25 June 2018

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Summer Specials

Sometimes, when Dude & I are talking, he asks about things I had when I was his age (ie, back in the early 80s) - it amuses him we didn’t have video games, that the Walkman hadn’t been invented, cameras were things you had to carry separately and phones were wired to the wall.  I can see why he’s amused but I still have a yearning for that time, when things were perhaps a bit simpler, because sometimes I believe they were better.  And as we drift towards summer, that presents the perfect example - the Summer Special!
Children’s comics now aren’t a patch on what they were back in the 70s and 80s (and even before that, I imagine).  Back when I was an avid comics reader, DC Thomson and Fleetway published a whole raft of weeklies that catered for most tastes, presented on pulpy-paper with a splash of colour, that kept us entertained.  That’s not the case now - take a look in any newsagent and supermarket and you’ll only see a few titles, sealed in plastic bags with all manner of doohickies included, like stickers, trading cards and cheap plastic toys you just know will fall apart before the day is out.

As kids, if we were off on holiday (or a substantial car trip) or had a lazy day in the back garden to look forward to, a Summer Special was a real treat.  A one-off edition of the weekly comic that was thicker and more colourful (and generally had a glossy cover), it gave your favourite characters a new location for adventures - Roger the Dodger at the seaside, say or Billy Whizz enjoying his summer holiday - or offered up longer stories, as happened in the Marvel comics imports.

You don’t really get Summer Specials any more and comics historian Lew Stringer (on his excellent blog) suggests that “today's retailers dislike them because they occupy valuable shelf space for too many months.”  He goes on to say, “the other reason is down to how comics themselves have evolved. With regular UK comics now being full colour glossies, how can a Summer Special stand out as "special"?”

Fleetway launched a Jack And Jill Summer Special in 1961 and Odhams, in 1962, produced one for Eagle.  After publishing a combined Dandy/Beano Special filled with reprints in 1963, DC Thomson launched individual Specials for both, with brand new material, the following year.  When IPC took over Fleetway in 1968, the format of the special changed, gaining the glossy cover and more pages.  The Summer Special really took off in the 70s, with seaside towns (in particular) ordering extra copies since they were pretty much guaranteed sellers - after all, those kids (a new batch every week) needed entertaining!

I think it’s a shame Dude has missed out on the pleasure of the Summer Special and here are a few from my golden-era of reading them (the late 70s and into the early 80s).  What were your favourites?
1972 - I didn't know this existed until I started researching this blog but I really want to see it!
1976 - war comics were a staple part of my childhood
1977 - I wrote a retrospective blog on Bullet here
1978 - depending on how quickly we read our own, sometimes my sister & I would swap comics
1978 - I wrote a retrospective post on Look-In here and looked at the cover art here

Thanks to Lew Stringer for the history and comicvine for some of the scans.  See also David Barnett’s excellent blog piece at The Guardian.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Becoming a Hybrid Author, a guest post by Jane Isaac

To mark the publication of her latest novel, After He's Gone, here's a guest post from my friend Jane Isaac.
Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog, Mark! This marks the publication of not only a new book for me, but also the start of a new crime series and a slight change of course in my publishing journey.

Those who’ve read my previous work will know that I currently write the DCI Helen Lavery series and the DI Will Jackman series, both published by Legend Press. While I will still be working with Legend on my backlist, as well as possibly more titles in future, I decided to dip my toe in the water of self-publishing this year to see if I could follow the process myself and become a hybrid author (a term used for those who mix traditional and self-publishing, although it conjures up pictures of roses and horticulture more than books to me!). For that purpose, I wrote a new crime series introducing Family Liaison Officer, DC Beth Chamberlain.

It can be a difficult decision to change series, especially when readers have invested so much in your characters, but I see it more as a break. I’d love to work with both Helen and Will again in the future, but wanted to try something different for the moment, to keep the stories fresh.

This new series has been an interesting one to research and write as it offers a different perspective on murder investigations, focusing on and around the victim’s family. Family Liaison Officers are deployed to support families of victims of serious crime like homicide, road death and other critical incidents. They spend a lot of time updating them on the investigation and feeding back information and often get very close. And since most people are killed by someone they know or someone close to them, it affords the opportunity to unravel some really intriguing secrets!

Self-publishing has certainly presented a huge learning curve – now I really know what goes on behind the scenes in the publishing world! I followed the same process I’ve been through many a time in traditional publishing, but this time I had to hire my own help along the way. Like many self-published authors, I spent a long time choosing the right structural editor, copy editor, proofer and formatter for my book so that the end product was a quality piece of work. I also had great fun working directly with the cover artists!

For me, it seems it’s all about the team you have around you and the timetabling. As long as you source good recommended people to work with and stick to a rigid timetable it seems that everything falls into place. I’m not saying there weren’t any nail-biting or pulling-your-hair-out moments, because there definitely were(!), but it’s like learning anything new – you have to do the training. I think next time I embark on a self-published title I will feel certainly feel more experienced and more organised, although I’m the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn.

I’ve just completed the first draft of the second DC Beth Chamberlain novel which is scheduled for release at the end of this year. One of the joys of writing a series is that, by the end of the first book, you know the character implicitly and it’s wonderful to challenge and stretch them in other directions. Plus, I get the chance to follow my self-publishing journey again as I start to prepare it for release. Watch this space there!

‘The safety catch on the Glock snapped as it was released. Her stomach curdled as she watched the face of death stretch and curve. Listened to the words drip from his mouth, ‘Right. Let’s begin, shall we?’ 

You think you know him. Until he’s dead.

When Cameron Swift is gunned down outside his family home, DC Beth Chamberlain is appointed Family Liaison Officer: a dual role that requires her to support the family, and also investigate them. 
As the case unfolds and the body count climbs, Beth discovers that nothing is quite as it appears and everyone, it seems, has secrets. 

Even the dead…

If you'd like to know more about Jane, you can read an interview I conducted with her on the blog here.

Jane Isaac lives with her detective husband (very helpful for research!) and her daughter in rural Northamptonshire, UK where she can often be found trudging over the fields with her Labrador, Bollo. Her debut, An Unfamiliar Murder, was nominated as best mystery in the 'eFestival of Words Best of the Independent eBook awards 2013.' The follow up, The Truth Will Out, was nominated as ‘Thriller of the Month – April 2014’ by

After He’s Gone is Jane’s sixth novel and the first in a new series featuring Family Liaison Officer, DC Beth Chamberlain. The second DC Beth Chamberlain novel will be released later in 2018.

Connect with Jane at

Monday, 11 June 2018

Star Wars At 40 (pop-up 5) - An Appreciation of Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph Angus McQuarrie (13th June 1929 - 3rd March 2012) was born in Gary, Indiana and began art classes at the age of ten.  After graduation and active service in the Korean War (where he survived a shot to the head thanks to his helmet lining), he studied at the Art Centre College of Design in California - alongside ‘visual futurist’ (to be) Syd Mead - and in 1950 began working at the Boeing Company in Seattle as a technical illustrator.  Moving to California, he worked for Reel Three which produced illustrations for NASA that were used on CBS News’ live coverage of the Apollo space program and that led to a call from Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins who needed illustrations to help sell a film they were planning.  Whilst Ralph wasn't particularly interested in sci-fi, he “was in love with airplanes and spacecraft" and working on the illustrations “felt like that was really the place I should be. I had found what I should be doing.”

Though Barwood & Robbins, Ralph was contacted by their friend George Lucas for help with his own sci-fi project.  "He was interested in talking to me...about a big space-fantasy film.  A couple [of] years went by and George did American Graffiti…then one day he called to see if I'd be interested in doing something for Star Wars.”

with George Lucas
The script was complicated and Lucas knew he needed something to sell it, without having to rely on the imaginations of the studio executives.  “George said, I’ll give you this script, read it, and when you come to something you like, make a little pencil drawing and we’ll look at it later.”  They met every couple of weeks with Ralph doing his “best to depict what I thought the film should look like. I didn't think the film would ever get made. My impression was it was too expensive. There wouldn't be enough of an audience. It's just too complicated. But George knew a lot of things that I didn't."

On the strength of the paintings and the pitch, Lucas was given funding to start pre-production.  One of the most famous pictures was one of the first - C3PO and R2-D2 in front of a cliff on Tatooine.  “George wanted Tatooine to be a desert planet with twin I was thinking, 'Desert, extreme heat, no plants, just rocks and dust”.  C3PO came from a “photograph of the female robot from Metropolis (1927), [George] said he’d like Threepio to look like that, except to make him a boy.”  Anthony Daniels saw the painting (which you can see at the end of this post) when he went to audition and was touched by the image.  “Without his inspirational art,” Daniels says in Empire Of Dreams, “I would not be C-3PO. I once said to him, ‘This is all YOUR fault!’ Then I thanked him.”

Concept sketch of the heroes
As well as the sets and ships, Ralph also designed R2-D2, Chewbacca and Darth Vader.  In the script, Vader had flowing black robes “that would flutter in the wind” but as the Sith Lord had to cross between his Star Destroyer and the Rebel Blockade Runner in the vacuum of space, Ralph suggested he needed a breathing mask.  Lucas agreed, suggested adding a samurai helmet “and Darth Vader was born. Simple as that.”

“Working on Star Wars was a special opportunity to start from the ground up,” Ralph later said.  “Being able to create new characters, vehicles and different worlds ... and since when I started it wasn’t even clear that the film would be made, I didn’t have to limit myself.”

As part of the newly created Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) - “there was some sort of a rumour going around that [nobody] over thirty worked on Star Wars and I was 45” - he also produced several key matte paintings, his first foray into the artform.

Following his work on Star Wars, he produced designs for the Mothership in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and worked on a planned Star Trek film (Planet Of The Titans) which never happened.  Ralph moved on to the Battlestar Galactica TV series (1978), designing the craft (his original version of the Viper was re-worked for Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (1979)), the aliens and Cylons, producing 24 paintings in total to help sell the project.

Working on the Cloud City landing platform matte painting
from "The Empire Strikes Back"
Back in the ILM fold, Ralph was concept designer for the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which notably featured the debut of Boba Fett, arguably one of his most popular character designs.  For The Empire Strikes Back, he produced concept art and production paintings - including the first glimpse of the AT-ATs - as well as several matte paintings.  He also played the uncredited role of General Pharl McQuarrie at the Hoth base (of which an action figure was made for the Star Wars 30th anniversary) before leaving ILM to go freelance.

He worked on two back-to-back Steven Spielberg films, creating on-screen artwork for Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and the spaceship from E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial (1982).  “Steven was at ILM one day and I talked with him for about five minutes - he said he [wanted] ET’s space ship to look like Dr. Suess designed it. I thought that was kind of interesting, very off the wall.”
top left - artwork of "the power of the ark" as seen in Raiders Of The Lost Ark - right - ET's ship
bottom - concept design for the Mothership in
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
Ralph went back to ILM as conceptual artist for Return Of The Jedi and after his work on the project was finished, George Lucas made a point of thanking him in front of everyone.  Nilo Rodis-Jamero, also a designer on the film, said in interview, “Ralph stood up and said, ‘I was one of the first people that George hired,’ because Ralph is an unbelievably humble man. George got up and said, ‘No, you were the first one.’”

from left - Ken Ralston, Ralph McQuarrie,
Molly Ringwald (presenter), Scott Farrar and David Berry
He was the concept artist on Cocoon (1985) for which ILM won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  Supervisor Ken Ralston said, “Ralph is a big reason why we were honoured. Simply stated Ralph McQuarrie has the ability to paint dreams.”

After working on Masters Of The Universe he finally got his Star Trek chance when, working at ILM, he produced concept designs for  23rd century San Francisco, Starfleet Headquarters, shuttlecrafts, whale tanks, and storyboards for the fourth film The Voyage Home.  He reunited with Matthew Robbins to work on *batteries not included (1987) and his last credit was for Nightbreed (1990) where he painted the history of the breed as a sixty-foot long mural which features heavily in the opening credits.

He was offered the design role for the Star Wars prequel trilogy but felt he’d “run out of steam” and retired, though his Star Wars concept paintings were subsequently displayed in art exhibitions, including the acclaimed 1999 show Star Wars: The Magic Of Myth.  As it is, his original designs and unused concept art are still influencing the saga, both with the animated TV shows, the sequels and the stand-alone films.

McQuarrie died at his Berkeley, California home from complications of Parkinson's disease and is survived by his wife Joan.

Following his passing, George Lucas said, "His genial contribution, in the form of unequalled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy. When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph's fabulous illustrations and say, 'do it like this'.  We will all be benefiting from his oeuvre for generations to come. Beyond that, I will always remember him as a kind, patient and wonderfully talented friend and collaborator.”

Star Wars (1977) (production illustrator)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (spaceship designer)
Battlestar Galactica (1978) (production and concept illustrator)
Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) (production illustrator)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) (design consultant and conceptual artist)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (illustrator)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) (scenic artist/spaceship design)
Return of the Jedi (1983) (conceptual artist)
Cocoon (1985) (conceptual artist) Oscar for Best Visual Effects
Masters of the Universe (1987) (conceptual artist)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) (visual consultant)
*batteries not included (1987) (conceptual artist)
Nightbreed (1990) (conceptual artist)

On holiday in Torquay in 1989, I picked up a copy of Ralph's Star Wars portfolio from a second-hand bookshop (and thankfully kept hold of it as they're worth a fortune now).  Having been a big Star Wars fan from the off, I'd seen his work a lot (that little RMcQ was a real guarantee of quality) and I've always been impressed with the scope and vitality of the images.  Here are a few of my favourites...

Concept art for Battlestar Galactica
The Empire Strikes Back Bounty Hunters
 You can read my post on the matte paintings from Star Wars (including several by Ralph) here

2017 marked the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I ran a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here