An Englishman and a Noble Man
An Interview with Mike Noble - Part One
Illustration: Kung Fu, for Look-In, 1975.
The interview, arranged some weeks in advance, had a sudden hiccup when Mike Noble phoned out of the blue a couple of days beforehand - a sudden tragedy meant a reschedule. Shortly after, he rang back to say he'd got the dates a bit muddled, and we could visit as originally planned. "You must think me daft." he jokes.
Daft? Hardly. There are many adjectives that spring to mind when describing the work of this distinctive icon of British comic art, but that isn't one of them. Indeed, even though I know Mike Noble has been in the business since at least the 1950s, it comes as a shock when he says he is in his seventies, as the vitality of his work continues to give the impression of someone still very young at heart. As Kim Stevens (fellow Mike Noble fan, and press-ganged sound recordist for the interview) and myself discover, this is not far from the truth, and he comes over as thoughtful but shy, with a charming smile, welcoming gentlemanly manner, and wry sense of humour.
Mike Noble was also prepared, referring to a stripography compiled for Comics World in the 1990s, and kindly providing us with a copy. This provides some surprises, such as a Kung Fu strip for Look-In early in 1975, replacing regular artist Martin Asbury for one story. This would turn out to be his last regular colour strip work. In return, Kim and myself are able to surprise him by referring to a wide variety of this work over the years, honed from our collections, and an impromptu trip to a comic retailer scant days beforehand.
Michael Noble... from the beginning.
So, was the young Mike Noble keen on drawing and illustration, or at school? "Yes. I have a brother who is equally keen on art." Does he also illustrate professionally? "No, he took an entirely different direction. He was quite good at school... academically. Superior to me!" And at this point he laughs at the juxtaposition, "He went into the health service. But when we were boys, because father had an ability to draw, we used to fill up these drawing books, quite rapidly. Drawing all sorts of things. So we were very interested. This was in the thirties, from about 1935 or 1936 onwards. So yes, we were always in our spare time drawing."
If you ask professional artists of a certain age now (which is usually well into retirement as Mike Noble himself testifies) which artists or comics influenced them when growing up, they point to artists like Mike Noble, Frank Bellamy and Ron Embleton. So which comics, if he read them, would perhaps have influenced the young Mike Noble? "Well, we have to move on a bit don't we, because when I first started work... " He explains the path of his formative years in a slightly roundabout way. "Well, we have to move on a bit don't we, because when I first started work... I'd been to an art school. I left my regular education and went to the South West Essex Technical College, which had a school of art attached to it, and did life drawing and commercial art rather than illustration. And got a job in a studio in High Holburn. So I didn't start straight away illustrating comics. The only comic I used to have when I was a boy, was Film Fun, would you believe? Now this was a pulp publication done on newsprint, and this came out before the war, and had people like Arthur Askey, and film star characters, as cartoons. So I really didn't aim at doing illustration for boys' papers. I thought my career was very much more concerned with doing commercial work for advertising. And that's what I did until I was called up to do my National Service. I joined Chelsea Studios in 1947, and then I was an office boy, and just had to run parcels round and do odd jobs. Then I went into the army in Catterick, and fortunately I managed to get into the Regimental Drawing Office."
Illustration: Frontispiece for the Girl annual, number Eight, 1958.
In other interviews, Mike Noble had mentioned the fact he had something of a career in drawing while in the army, illustrating things like the armoured vehicles, and other hardware? "Yes, it was the 8th Royal Tank Regiment. They had Centurion Tanks." And indicates some models of tanks, on top of his television, "But what I was doing was notices, and drawing a typewriter, so everybody could know how to type. Then how to wear a uniform, and the correct way to wear your beret!" And again, he laughs at the seeming absurdity of the image.
At this point Kim, who has interested in military hardware, takes a break from brooding over the mini-disc recorder to ask some questions. Did Mike Noble ever draw weapons or guns at all? "No. I seem to remember I did one or two drawings inside the tank. You know, how to drive the thing. But no Lee-Enfield rifles, or Bren Guns, or anything like that. Actually, while I was there, I went up to the tank park and we had some spare time and of course I was only working in this small office with another chap. And we were almost a little unit of our own (laughs) so you could get away with an awful lot! You probably haven't been in the forces, have you?" There's a slight awkward pause, and I shake my head. And Kim - who would have difficultly harming a fly - most certainly hasn't. Mike Noble continues, "I mean your first initial training, you're chased around from pillar to post, and marched up and down the parade ground, and 'Get your hair cut, laddie!' and all that business." And again he laughs his wonderful chuckle, which is almost a result my blushing as my hair length alone - rivalling that of Kim's - would possibly be that of an entire platoon or two of the crewcuts of the Royal Tank Regiment. But Kim - thankfully - is back on the trail, and asks if when drawing hardware for science fiction, did the National Service help with memories of those weapons and machinery? "Oh yes, it was more sort of the armoured vehicles which I use. Sometimes they were hover things that didn't even touch the ground. There were these guys running around 'cos I did one or two strips with some American soldiers, or pseudo-American soldiers running around."
Kim has picked up on the fact that one popular design of gun Mike Noble draws looks like a sten gun, with the frame-work butt. "Well, they were done from memory because I haven't got a whole load of reference for those. I do make them up, but then a gun is an intricate mechanism, with shapes and sizes. I mean even the guards brigades today, I wouldn't know one end from the other hardly. It's all to make it look as if it worked." This attention to detail, and desire for 'reality' even in science fiction and fantasy work, is something that would crop up later in the interview.
Illustration: Timeslip, from Look-In, 1970. Featuring the 'frame work' rifle butts.
Mike Noble continues, "So it was quite a change to have a job in the Regiment, where people came to you and said can you do this, that and the other. For the C.O. (Commanding Officer) for instance, there was the Battle of El Alamein, and he taught his officers the tactics that were used on both sides. So I had to do a big drawing of the North African desert in Egypt between the Mediterranean and Qattara Depression with German and Brtiish forces depicted. That sort of thing I was asked to do. Now I went up to the tank park off my own bat, and did some drawings there, which I kept. And when I came out of the army, I got this big one photographed and used it as a reference - as a sample of my work. I also did a drawing of some tanks for the corporal's club... we had the sergeant's mess, and they had the corporal's club. Because they thought it was all magic! So I did my eighteen months, and then came out, went back to the same Chelsea Studio in Holborn. And then I suddenly began to realise that doing commercial work wasn't using my abilities as I thought! (laughs) Such as they were! You know, doing peas around a tin. About three hundred pods of peas, with leaves! (laughs) And that wasn't my idea of making a career. So, one or two people in the studio said, 'Well, why don't you have a look in the studios magazine, advertising for jobs?' and one of them was Cooper Studio. An artist and illustrator called Leslie Caswell, who was doing stuff for John Bull, Woman, Womans Own. A straight illustrator who wanted someone to help him. So I applied and took all my pieces, specimens of work - I'd managed to get a portfolio together, of things I liked drawing, and I got the job! And the tanks helped, because Leslie Caswell had been in the Royal Artillery during the war. He thought they were okay. So I started at Cooper Studio." This would have been in 1952, and during this period Mike Noble also worked on a strip called Simon and Sally for the relatively new Robin comic.
Illustration: The Indian Fighter, the story of Pocahontas from the TV Comic Annual 1962.
How much influence then, would Leslie Caswell - as a professional illustrator - have had on the style of his own work? "Not so much the style perhaps, but you have to learn how to design an illustration within a box. Before, you do illustrations on pieces of paper, and it's like a vignette. But when you're obliged to do four pictures in a row, he taught me... very much like a TV cameraman would teach. You know, a sequence of pictures... the first figure should always be looking inwards." By this, Mike Noble means that it is never a good idea to have the subject - say, a person - looking or pointing out of an illustration or frame at something else. This is especially true in publishing, where you might be looking at a competitor's advert or something. All the subjects should lead back into the picture and lead the reader back into it. Or in the case of a comic strip, aid the flow of story telling from one frame to another. Leslie Caswell had more influences on Mike Noble in this respect. "He showed the use of close-ups, but it was all done for a strip, in Woman, called Bringing Up Baby (laughs). Which was very curious. But it didn't do me any harm, and gave me a lot of experience. I was having to draw a little baby. He did the finished artwork. We got the script from Woman, and there were four or five pictures a week, and he'd ask me to sketch out each frame. And then he'd look at it, and he'd criticise it, and say 'Well look, this figure is a bit here... and a bit there, and this needs doing here'. So I was learning the fundamentals of illustrating in a strip, which I think held me in good stead ever since. And then he used to do illustrations for The Birmingham Weekly Post, black and white stuff, and they were just fictional stories. Often something quite dramatic. Perhaps it was a murder scene or someone driving over a cliff. And I used to help him with that. And of course, the love stories!" Mike Noble pulls a mock face of horror, and rolls his eyes a little. "Which everyone was amused about because it was something... " He pauses, not quite sure how to explain what seems an obvious dislike, "...that I didn't take to too much. I liked a bit of action, a bit of macho. There were girls in the studio, who were doing fashion drawings, they were 18, 19, 20 or so... and there I was having to model for these (romance stories), while Caswell drew us! And everyone was tickled pink! Poor old Michael! I didn't mind though!" And this time he laughs again. "So I was doing a bit of modelling as well, not that he used my face you see! He wanted someone a bit less than mad! I got a fairly good grounding in composition, enabling me to do strips and also other illustrations. He pointed me towards... quite a lot of references from American magazines. Now after the war, the flavour of the month was Americanism. The influence was enormous because they carried on during the war normally, whereas we didn't. So they had very good illustrators doing love stories, action stories, cowboy stuff, in The Saturday Evening Post. And I learnt an awful lot from the illustrations in there. And of course, when you're an artist, like you would composing music, or writing, any art form - you feed off one another. You tend to learn from them... techniques, colour combinations... all sorts of things. That's where my influences came from."
At this point, Mike Noble asks, 'Is that okay?' The question is perhaps prompted by the fact I was worriedly glancing at the time. While we want all the detail, I'm hoping to get through more than 80 questions in the two hours we have. Amazingly, as much a professional interviewee as he is an artist, Mike Noble has already managed to answer the first ten or so already. So we continue.
Illustration: The Lone Ranger, from Express Weekly, 1959.
So moving on from advertising, how did Mike Noble come to move into 'action and adventure' comics that he is best known for? "Leslie Caswell was a freelance artist in the studio. Millicent Cooper was the boss - we called her 'Billie' Cooper, so everyone thought she was a man! Leslie Caswell decided he'd move down to Cornwall so off he went. And Billie Cooper was rather wondering whether I was going to follow him! In fact, he said 'would you like to come along too?' And I didn't fancy that... I didn't want to play second fiddle. I wanted to do my own type of artwork. Because the love stories were alright, but there are only so many clinches, aren't there?" And he mimicks trying to hold an imaginary woman in a few different romantic clinches. One can imagine some people being quite envious of that opportunity! "And that's it! I thought, no, no... I want something a bit more active. So, Billie Cooper - bless her heart - she went round to all sorts of people that she knew, and it was TV Express (originally Junior Express, then Express Weekly) that was producing some cowboy stuff, so she came trotting along and asked 'can you draw horses and cowboys?' Well fortunately, as a boy, I'd made it my business to try and draw horses. So I was able to draw them reasonably well. And of course you have to do it from memory when you draw in comics... "
Recalling my own experience of getting slapped down by more than one teacher at school or art college because of drawing from memory, and not life or reference, did Mike Noble ever used reference material himself?
"Well, you do, but... there's a certain limitation. You can't afford to have models because of the expense... I mean, this chap who did Dan Dare... " And he is referring to the strip's creator and principal artist Frank Hampson, "I mean, he spent hours with his models, and he even used to do a rough! I read his book about it. (The Man Who Drew Tomorrow, by Alastair Crompton) But really, it takes hours and hours, and in the end the cost of the artwork is enormous! And Hulton suddenly realised this after a time. Because there were other artists who do sit there and draw from memory. Some can and some can't. Well I fortunately, being a boy, with my pencil... it was all imagination. So I got this ability. What I had to do was hone my capability, get my drawing right. Correct in proportions, and everything."
Presumably that applies to everything though? Figure drawing... ?
"You've got to remember how folds in clothes are. What a jumper does... when you're running... how the folds go, more or less. So when I started doing TV Express, of course I got photographs of The Range Rider, or The Lone Ranger. But they were stills - they were sitting on their horse. You knew what the saddles, the bridal or the equipment he was using. His stetson and his clothes, his guns... but then that was what you got, and that was all you got! You had to make up the rest, and you had to get a great fund of references of western buildings, western landscapes."
So, apart from the reference that was provided, what other sources were available for this kind of stuff? "All these I was getting, fortunately, from my aunt who used to live in London, and she lived with an American lady, as a sort of ladies' maid. After the war, she went to New York and lived there, and she used to send me Life magazine and Saturday Evening Post. So I kept all those, and it was those that provided me with a lot of the American 'western' references. You just go through it and if you see something, you tear it out and put it to one side."
Illustration: The Lone Ranger comes to TV Comic, in an advert from issue 443, dated 11 June 1960.
Having dabbled in illustration myself, though a designer by trade, the question has to be asked - what media you use?
"It was black ink. You pencil first, and set the page out as the printer requires. You get a graphics layout size, and work half up (fifty percent bigger) to the printed size, and then they say it's three decks. The pictures vary according to the story, but that's usually two pages, or if it's one page it may be eight or ten frames."
Slight variations to this had been mentioned occasionally, but was half up a consistent scale?
"Yes, always. I didn't like to work too big. God, you'd have to cover a bigger area!"
Going back to The Lone Ranger, it seems Mike Noble was not chosen by the fact he could do western stuff, for example? "I'd never drawn cowboys before but this is the peculiar thing about my career. They paid me for learning on the job! (laughs) Which is amazing when you come to think about it. When you come to think of it, if you're any sort of artist you adapt, don't you. And if you're not sure, so long as you can get the right references, you feel much more confident because you can draw it like it is. Whatever it is, you just draw it. So I got the scripts, and I did the drawings, and they seemed to like them alright. So it was just line - black line. Process black (a pure black ink used in printing).
Which you would thin down (add water to) for grey washes? "Absolutely. You would use it as a watercolour."
And would that be the same for colour work? Using print based inks? "Yes."
The Lone Ranger came to a stop in TV Express in the summer of 1960, to be transferred as a duotone strip in the publication's longer running but younger orientated TV Comic. "I went and did several cowboy strips. The Lone Ranger, and then The Range Rider." This was another popular western on BBC Television, and the strip version replaced The Lone Ranger from 1961, and also ran for a couple of years.
Illustration: The Range Rider, from the TV Comic Annual 1965.
At this point, a TV Comic annual from 1964 is produced, with a duotone strip of The Range Rider drawn by Mike Noble, who is pleasantly surprised by the blast from the past. Especially a fight scene within the strip itelf.
"I loved to do all these people falling and jumping about! And with the green... yes, they said 'black and white, and one colour.' This is something of a surprise. Surely Mike Noble did not actually draw it that way? "Yes, I used to colour it. It was full colour when I was working for Express Weekly. The Range Rider, they asked be to do in red and black (in the weekly issues)." It was always assumed that the duotone effect was done in production, but as Mike Noble continues, "It looks like it, doesn't it? But we had to do it in colour. And of course the colour varied." And he indicates the Range Rider pages of the annual, "You see where you put the wash on, and then you put the green on top, so you get a lighter and a darker green. Here, I was using an orange (for the second spread in the annual). And a green again (for the final pages)." The difference in tonal values can be compared with his earlier Lone Ranger work, where it is line and colour without so much of the added black washes.
Despite a long and healthy run, things do not last forever - especially licensed television tie-ins - and The Range Rider finished being aired. "And then everything sort of dried up quite suddenly." But for Mike Noble, TV Comic had another significance. "It was there that I met Alan Fennell, though he wasn't editor. Mike Thorne was..."
In another interview Mike Noble had mentioned while working on TV Comic, he was aware of the Supercar and Fireball XL5 strips, drawn respectively by Bill Mevin and Neville Main. "I was also looking at these space stories. When you did something in a magazine, you also looked and saw Fireball XL5. It was all in the same comic, and every week you got this comic sent to you. You looked through the thing and it was like... my God, that's mine! Oh, something's gone wrong there... and the printer's made a boo-boo, or something. The printing wasn't bad but they did have their off days occasionally, which drove you absolutely bananas."
So with the ending of western strips like The Range Rider in TV Comic (in issue 658, dated 25 July 1964), what was next for Mike Noble? "They'd finished The Range Rider, and Billie Cooper had gone off on one of her long summer holidays - she goes away for about six weeks. And the people in the studio said they hadn't anything for me, except cartoon work. So I said I was always willing to have a go. So I did Beetle Bailey, this American GI chap (which replaced The Range Rider, from issue 659). They sent me one or two strips from America, and I did a rough and a finished strip, and they said, oh well that's alright! The chap who was writing the scripts, the funny thing was... he wrote the script and he did a visual! All these pictures.. in pencil! He said, 'I can't do it unless I visualise it first'. I thought, that's fair enough, I'll work to what you want. So I did the finished drawings from his quick sketches, so that helped enormously. And while that was going on, they said, 'can you do the Popeye front cover?' So I said, yes I'll have a go at Popeye. But of course, cartoon work... figures running, they're all stylised. But it's like doing a whole series of shapes, and it was a rest cure really, compared to doing realistic stuff."
Illustration: TV Comic issue 659, dated 01 August 1964, with the first Beetle Bailey strip, and Popeye on the front cover, both drawn by Mike Noble.
At this point Kim, who had been going over issues of TV Comic to try and find a Mike Noble signature on the Beetle Bailey and Popeye strips from this era, pipes up that the problem is, 'We've probably read them, and can't identify them as your work.' "No, you can't." he replies. Was it that he was not allowed to sign them either? "No, one didn't. I thought because they were syndicated stuff, and they were obviously from the originating artist in America, you could hardly put your name on it." Strangely enough, other artists had signed the strip, such as Chick Henderson, who Mike Noble had replaced on the Popeye strip. "The curious thing was, I did forget to put my name on."
And after the interview, a somewhat slicker and detailed style was seen on the Popeye strip, from around July/August 1964, the same time Beetle Bailey started, and continuing until about the beginning of 1965. While the style isn't pure Noble, the smooth colouring is almost immediately identifiable, standing out from the flat colour other artists used before and after. Who else but Mike Noble would use an airbrush and such subtle tones on the strip?
Mike Noble continues, "It was during that period that Alan Fennell had left TV Comic, because he'd got to know Gerry Anderson, and the Lew Grade set-up on television, and they had launched this TV21. It had started, I think there were one or two at the beginning, and the chap who was doing Fireball XL5 (Graham Coton), either he didn't want to do it any more, or... I don't know the circumstances. By that time I was working at home as a freelance, as I'd already established myself. Billie Cooper was still my agent but instead of working in the studio, I worked at home."
Examples of the reprints of Fireball XL5 in the 1990s Thunderbirds The Comic, and the first story Mike Noble drew: 'The Vengeance Of Saharis', are produced for him to look over. He is turns to the second part.
"The big laugh here in this story, which I tell quite often, is that this sky here has turned grey. It was because I had a list of inks to work to, and you had to stick to that because it was an infra-red type of printing process. The camera picked up any black so all the inks had to be free of any black. I'd got this aerograph (airbrush) I bought for spraying. I thought if I've got all these space skies to do, I'd better get this as it's the simplest way of doing it. Anyway I looked at this blue ink which wasn't on the list, but it was superb for the skies. It wasn't a Prussian Blue, it was an indigo, which was just right. So I thought, 'blow it, I'll do it in that'. And there were great screams, and they said 'there's black in it, and the camera's picking it up'. And it turned the thing into a grey! It should be like that!" And he indicates another, later page where 'space' is a deep dark blue. "They said, 'for God's sake, don't use that!' So ever since, I've used a Prussian Blue, which meant I had to put another half a dozen more layers on, spray it on and spray it on, to darken it. That's why that was washing up water... I admitted to it!"
Mike Noble had mentioned before that on these first Fireball XL5 strips, he had another artist helping because he was still working on TV Comic, and had a heavier workload? "Yes, that's right. But he wasn't doing that (Fireball XL5). He was helping me with Beetle Bailey and Popeye. I had suddenly found I was working seven days a week... oh God, and it was too much! In the end, I said to Mike Thorne, 'I can't do it all'. Anyway they phased out the Beetle Bailey, so I was able to concentrate on this because two colour pages, although it doesn't seem all that much, by the time you spray it all. I mean, all these figures have to be masked out. I did get a chap in to help me for a while, he was from Australia. But he didn't do the finished artwork. He was always wanting to do something on Fireball XL5, but I'm afraid his figure work wasn't really up to it."
Illustration: Promoting the new decimal currency, early 1971.
Did it really take Mike Noble a full working week to do two full colour pages? "Yes, you see it's half-up again. Some of them, like Ron Embleton, were doing a whole double spread. But when you come to doing all the pencil work. And then you do all the inking. And then you spray it. And then you do the colour work, and you have to build the colour up. The red, you see, you've got about five coats of red. You put it on pink. If you put it on full strength, and you're working on a fairly smooth board... " Which means it won't dry quickly enough? "Well it'll dry quickly but you get ridges, and it won't go on evenly. Ink is very unforgiving. You have to use it like a watercolour. You mix it with water, and put it on but you start as a pale colour, and build and build and build. Most of the colours you're putting on are four or five coats. That takes the time. If you're doing a horse, you've got all the tones. It takes a while. So that's why I used to spend about about six days - two on pencils, two on inking, and two on colour." So all the black line work first, and then colour on top, an expansion on the duotone work for the western strips? "Yes, always the line first. I stlil do."
Going back to TV Comic, and The Range Rider for example, the layouts are very rigid in boxes, and this carries over to the first Fireball XL5 strips. "Yes, but even there, Alan Fennell said to me, 'can we vary the boxes?' and all that sort of thing. It used to be everything was in lines, like a train standing in a station. Alan said to me, 'vary the sizes of the boxes, as long as you keep the decks', more or less. You have to design the whole page. He said, 'do what you feel you want to'. He was younger than me actually. We were only in our thirties. And he said, 'oh, try whatever you like - as long as it's readable and that! I don't mind if something's coming out of the frame', you know. So that's what we did. We used a little bit more imagination." So that was a case of you saying 'can we do something different?', and they encouraging you, rather than an editorial request to make it different? "Yes, absolutely. I mean, Ron Embleton was doing this sort of thing. And I thought, well if he's doing it, I can do it too. So the early ones are like that. But after a time, I decided it would be better to do the explosive stuff outwards, instead of inwards. You see the 'darts'? It sort of emphasised it more."
A merchandiser's specification sheet for Fireball XL5, reprinted in an issue of Century 21 Magazine in the 1990s, is brought out for Mike Noble to see. He recognises it instantly.
"That's right! I got one of those eventually. I didn't it at the beginning though." So what would he have worked from? "Black and white photographs. Front face, sides... and they were only puppets. That was another thing I've mentioned, to people who have asked me. Why I did it more realistically than on the television? They're all sort of..." And he mimics the jerky arm movements of a puppet movements, "...like this, with strings and that, and the head going round! I said to Alan, 'can't we take advantage of the fact that we can make them more realistic, more believeable? Wouldn't that be a good idea?' And he said, 'yes, do it!' As if they were real people. And that's what I did because... you see, a puppet's head was like that, and his body finished down here, so he'd got the proportions of a baby! I mean there were... one, two, three... " And he roughly measures the size of head of Matthew Matic against his body on the spec sheet, "...and that was it! Whereas of course there are eight heads in a (adult) body. So why restrict yourself to puppetry when you can do whatever you like?" It is mentioned that the first Supercar strips in TV Comic, drawn by Harold Tamblyn-Watts, had used realistic depictions of the characters, and wondered if Alan Fennell had recalled this to try again for TV Century 21. Mike Noble does not recall this, only the later caricatured work by Bill Mevin. "No, Alan was always happy with my realistic drawing, so that was fine. Keep it in. I mean, Ron Embleton was doing the same with Stingray, so that's how we did it."
Because there was such a jump from westerns to science fiction, did he have any kind of 'breaking in' period where he would do rough sketches, to get used to characters, hardware, and so on? "Oh, no! (laughs) I learnt on the job again! I hadn't done any before but of course I had looked at other people's work. I didn't come to it absolutely cold. In fact, after drawing horses, which is really quite difficult, I found that all space stuff was a bit of a doddle. The people were still a challenge but I mean, hardware and rockets... no problem really. I mean this (Fireball XL5) was pretty basic stuff."
Having gone to a technical college, had Mike Noble done any technical drawing, that helped with this kind of thing?
"No, it was a commercial art course, so it was still bottles of beer and so on. We did life drawing, and we did illustration there, but only as a side line. It was very much very careful drawing, using the aerograph, doing the colours and making them look photographic. No, it wasn't there that I learnt it. It was my aunt's magazines coming every week, and of course NASA had started up, and the space programme was going. I was getting photographs of all these rockets, and all this gantry stuff, and I was emulating it here. (see right, from Fireball XL5) This was from a photograph of a rocket. You could see what the smoke was doing, and you've got this great jet! So I thought, we must do something which looked really as if it's absolutely authentic. Because before, they used to do a rocket with a little flame, like a match flame at the bottom, didn't they? And it used to jerk up in the sky, and it looked pathetic! I thought no, what I'm going to do is make this look absolutely believeable. I was helped enormously because they were producing all these space vehicles, all the rockets, stage by stage. I was always aware that if you drew an aircraft, if you did it absolutely pristine and smooth, it didn't give the effect that a real aircraft gives because you see panels, and a little bit of writing, and a hole or two. And it's that, that makes it look authentic, like a smudge of exhaust at the side. Which is absolutely as it happens. And when Gerry Anderson was having his vehicles made for the TV programmes, well you can see how they smudge them. But they do panels, and a chequered ring around some of them, and it all helps to give this authentic look. So that's what I was using."
Because the scripts were now science fiction, with less obvious everyday reference, were they more detailed in their descriptions? "They didn't tell you how to draw, or what a new space vehicle looked like. I mean, this sky train here (from Fireball XL5 - The Vengeance Of Saharis, part 1) is all made up." So the script would simply say 'a sky train' and... ?
"I don't know if Alan Fennell wrote this, but Angus Allan, he wrote quite a lot I think. I was never sure, as no-one signed the scripts! But they were always pretty good. And for this one..." And he indicates the first part of The Vengeance of Saharis again (see above), "it would say 'pull back... a mountain scene. All of a sudden, the earth heaves and two doors come up'. They'd describe it like that, so you'd do it like that. And then this rocket suddenly comes up. I thought, there'd be all these pipes and things hanging off it. It was all just spurious stuff but it was trying to give the impression of mechanism."
Illustration: The crew of Zero X encounter an unusual creature. TV21 issue 198, 1968.
Did Mike Noble ever get caught out? For example, a script would describe an alien creature, which you would draw, and then the next week you'd be asked to make it do something which was 'wrong' for the look of it? "Well yes, there were one or two creatures. There was one that looked like an octopus in red. They'd say, its tentacles were moving around and that, but they wouldn't go into any detail at all. There was some chap in green, with a blessed television set at his back! (laughs) That was crazy! But they always used to leave it to you to do. And I used to think, well this looks something like believeable. And that blobby man on his plate... Fireball XL5? The Astrans... everybody seemed to like those, and I was amazed as I thought they looked pretty banal myself." When I mention that some had called the Astrans 'floating suppositories' (a reference to a strip called AC21, written by Graeme Bassett and drawn by Graham Bleathman, for the Supermarionation Is Go! magazine in the 1980s) Mike Noble roars with laughter, and nods in agreement... "Absolutely!"
Some other artists we've spoken to did not seem that keen on science fiction, and got bored after a year or so. You did quite long stints, for instance two years on both Fireball XL5 and Zero X. "Yes but they were different characters. What I thought I was doing, was trying to get it better, and better, and better, if I could. I thought the later Fireball XL5s were better than the first ones. And then I went onto Zero X, and again there was this massive machine. I was evolving all the time. It wasn't quite 'just a job'. I thought to myself, if I'm interested in it - if I can make it interesting for myself, surely the people reading it might be also. That was my attitude. It wasn't, 'oh, I've got to do another couple of pages'... you know, just get it out as soon as I can, for heaven's sake! I mean, I was too frightened to do that!" And he laughs again. And indeed, his stints are among the longest on TV Century 21. Bar three short breaks for holidays (covered by Frank Hampson for issue 40 to 43, and Eric Eden for issues 87 to 89, and 101 to 104), Mike Noble drew Fireball XL5 straight from issue 6 to issue 108. He drew Zero X for a similarly long period, a year from issue 105 to issue 154 (covered again by Eric Eden for issues 131 to 134) and then picking up the strip again from issue 197 to issue 241.
"Anyway," he picks up the thread again, "I was never confident. Some artists are supremely confident! But I'm not. I'm always nit-picking. I used to spend too long really. In fact, I've always been told not to spend so long. But it seems to have paid off in the end, as everyone seems so vastly interested." It is mentioned that the advent of the internet has allowed fans to get in touch more easily, on a global rather than local or national scale, and this - in many ways - has led to websites like The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History. Mike Noble seems in agreement. "This has transformed the whole thing because you do your artwork, you send it in, and you hear nothing. And just occasionally, some of these youngsters would write letters to the publishers. But you didn't see them half the time! It was only perhaps when I was working for Look-In, doing Space:1999, some lad said you haven't got the right number of engines on the back of the Eagle! Well I never got to see the back of the thing with the references they gave me. And I was so busy I never had time to go look at the telly programmes half the time!"
Illustration: Star Trek, from TV21, 1970, and different views of Palnak's 'Zoo'.
At this point, Kim wants to ask about visual continuity in Mike Noble's strips. Kim produces cherished copies of TV21 from 1970, when Mike Noble was drawing Star Trek, and refers to a story about a collector form the future called Palnak, who kidnaps Captain Kirk and Mr Spock to add to his zoo (see above). Kim had noticed that when the viewpoints in each frame changed, the placing of the cases remain consistent from issue to issue. This is also the case - among others - for the Zero X strip 'Strange New Planet', where the crew nearly meet a similar fate. How did Mike Noble plan these more complex interiors out? "These were the days when you couldn't rush along to a business shop and run off a print (photocopy), because these were done on board. So I had to get a bit of tracing paper, and trace out quite quickly, and perhaps make a note of where the cases were. Because it's the sort of thing which they used to use in the movie industry, Elstree, Pinewood... the following days shot has got to look the same as the one previously." So you took all the trouble to do that, Kim asks. "Oh yes! I thought, I should have taken photographs really. But then, in the days when we were doing this, you couldn't afford a camera with a flash. And anyway you'd have to wait for 30 frames and then go and take it (to be developed)! The only other idea was using a land camera (the first kind of Instamatic camera), but I haven't got one of those either. So that's what I did. I had to make sure that everything matched."
Mike Noble indicates Palnak, the alien collector from this Star Trek strip, "This chap I dreamt up, and I had to do a quick sketch of him. You see, they didn't reproduce them for six weeks. So I never saw the first one I'd done for six weeks, and I had to do five others before I had a colour reference of what I'd already done!" Does that mean he wouldn't see the first one until he had nearly finished? "I was never sure what was coming up. I had to guess sometimes! There was the odd occasion, where I rang up... the sword of Damocles thing, I think? (Fireball XL5, TV Century 21 issues 71-78) He had this sword hanging above his desk, and if he made a mistake the sword would impale him I suppose. (laughs) It was rather an elaborate office he'd got there, and I thought I'll get them to do a photograph for me, which they were quite happy to do."
In Part Two, Mike Noble goes on to discuss his work on Captain Scarlet, for the Junior TVTimes magazine Look-In, and for the 1990s Fleetway comics for Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet.
The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History would like to extend its thanks to Mike Noble for this interview.
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