Interview with Transformers Lee Sullivan
We had a very unique chance to have an interview with legend Lee Sullivan.
Lee, you are one of the most accomplished artists that has worked in the UK comic book industry, but you are also a talented musician. What are your musical influences and can you tell me a bit about the Roxy Tribute band that you toured with?
Well, playing the sax came about because of Roxy Music, there were a few key bands that were around when I was growing up. The first was Slade and the next was Roxy Music and I was about 13 / 14 at the time. They were terribly disparate bands, but they made me sit up and take notice. Slade were a great good time band but Roxy were a very intelligent, sophisticated glimpse into a life I had no understanding of. Except through glimpses in old-time movies, there was a retro – futuristic aspect to them. I was transfixed by the sound and even the look of the saxophonist – his name was Andy Mackay. It was a particular form of Saxophone playing, it’s not Jazz, I’m not particularly interested in Jazz. It’s a combination of Rock and he’s also a classically trained Oboe player. So this combination gave him a totally different slant on playing Sax. It was one which appealed to me a great deal. It was one of Rock and Roll and precise structured solo’s and very fluid Jazz solo’s.
Fast forward, I was 25 and I was on holiday, just before I got married. I was in Portugal and was staying in this lovely hotel and I walked out of the hotel and I saw these leaflets saying “Roxy Music Concert”. I thought “That must have been for last week ” because I couldn’t have possibly gone to Portugal and found that my favourite band – Roxy Music were playing, right on my doorstep! But it was and I obviously had to go along to the concert and see them. That particular day, I had met up with a few friends and we decided to have lunch at the hotel that evening so we could go to the concert early. We sat in a fairly large restaurant and Andy Mackay walked in and came right up to me and asked me if the restaurant was open. I said “Yes Mr. Mackay it is” and he gave me this old-fashioned look – and he’s been doing that ever since. He walked out and Brian Ferry walked in and I thought “This is great – I’ve met my heroes” and then I watched them play that night and that tripped a switch in my head. I thought that I would just love to learn how to play one of the particular songs that was played that night – it was called Tara.
With anything, including comics, you have to be enthusiastic about learning something, you have to plug away at it. I went back home and met a guy who had a pair of Saxophones and he let me borrow them so I could try them out. So I locked myself in my bedroom for the next 10 years, playing along with everything. Playing along with my Roxy records and sometimes Top of the Pops when it was on. I just assumed that was how everyone done it. I can play by ear, but I can’t read music and I don’t know what any of the notes are called or the keys are called but I can play. Around the time the tribute bands were starting up and my wife made the mistake of saying that I should put an advert up in a music shop, because she knew I had wanted to join a band. One thing led to another and I joined a Roxy Tribute Band, this lasted about 6 gigs and culminated in one of the smaller O2 arenas. I was actually playing a solo that night, when the power cut out. That led to another Roxy Tribute night with a great lead singer and a fantastic core of musicians. We got 40 gigs in the first year and we did on average about 30 – 40 gigs each year. I started to have to move away from that due to my work. Comic book work is not very amenable to having something going on in your spare time, time is tight to get the artwork completed. I had a lot of fun but it was very tiring, travelling up to Scotland and the Midlands. For the two hours that you would be onstage, it could be roughly 2 days of travel time you would have to include. It was tough but there was an incredible reward to be playing the stuff you love live.
I used to send Andy Mackay some artwork for his 40th birthday – you will see some of these on my website. He was very pleased with that and he sent a message back. I kind of, slightly, got to know him through doing this. He was also interested in doing some graphics work as well, so it was really extraordinary – it wasn’t because I was a Sax player or anything like that, it was because I had sent him some cartoons. That interesting combination which culminated at my last gig with Roxy Magic and a mutual friend advised him that it was going to be my last gig. As I sat in the pub just before the gig, I received a text message from him saying “I hear that you are about to join the ranks of the unemployed Roxy saxophonists, good luck, have a great gig” . So I went on this tremendous journey from seeing it to living it and being given best wishes as I left it from the guy who started it all off in the first place.
My first association with your work came at a very early age – around 5 years old, my sister bought me some of your comics as a form of bribery so not to tell my parents that instead of looking after me she spent Saturday morning sleeping! One of my favourite comics at the time was Transformers, could you tell me a little about your association with this franchise – what you brought to it in terms of visual characterisation etc
When I was drawing Optimus Prime, I was actually drawing Adam West’s Batman, that’s what was going on. I had no handle with The Transformers, I came into comics quite late. I started doing them around 1986 / 1987. That’s when I started doing covers for The Transformers. It was John Higgins who was my contact and my entry into the comics world. He had been looking for someone to be an assistant on a strip that he was doing. John took me into Marvel UK and also Computer and Video Games Magazine. Ian Rimmer who was the editor of Transformers UK at the time liked what I was doing so he gave me some covers. I did these covers for a year or so and I plucked up the courage to ask if I could do a strip. Actually, a few years before this, they had given me a script and I found that I couldn’t view the angles or was really able to piece it all together, the choreography of the page. So it took me a while to get to grips with story telling, but the first strip I did was a Transformers annual story – Altered Image which was Galvatron meets Megatron.
I leaned very heavily on Geoff Senior, I looked at his style and it was the closest to myself and I think that there’s never been a better Transformers artist than Geoff, he’s absolutely gifted with scale, weight, drive and push. Now with Optimus Prime being Batman, I made Galvatron be Jack Nicholson. That’s exactly who I was drawing, with Prime I had this idea that we was a very sober kind of guy. He’s obviously the great heroic figure in the comics – the leader of the Autobots. When I think of Adam West’s Batman it’s exactly like that, he’s very serious, but the whole thing is outrageous. Megatron, I never really had an idea about who he was, but Galvatron – his helmet and his face were great. I just thought he was Jack Nicholson from The Shining in his mad phase.
Check out our review of some of Lee Sullivan’s Transformer books here