Comic Book Artist PJ Holden Releases Numbercruncher

Belfast-based comic book artist discusses his latest title and the future of the industry in the digital age

'It’s a romantic story at heart,' says Belfast-based comics artist PJ Holden of latest project, Numbercruncher, the first issue of which is already gracing the shelves of your local comic book store.

For fans of Holden’s back catalogue, this may come as something of a surprise. He is, of course, best known work is on Judge Dredd, 2000AD’s ultra-violent series involving a lawman from the future who takes no prisoners. But is Numbercruncher a straight up love story, or is there more to it than that?

That would be a no and a yes. Numbercruncher is a twisting, violent story that features a brilliant Mathematician who dies young, enters the afterlife and discovers a way to cheat the terrifying ‘Divine Calculator’.

Numbercruncher schemes to be endlessly reincarnated within the lifespan of the woman he loves, no matter how often the violent bailiffs of the Karmic Accountancy – headed up by the enigmatically named Bastard Zane – cut short each of his lives.

Despite the Kafka-meets-calculus subject matter dreamt up by English writer and long-time collaborator Simon Spurrier, Holden insists that Numbercruncher is a rollicking read.

'From the reader’s point of view it is a very linear, easy to follow tale,' he explains, 'despite the fact that it involves time travel and all sorts of jumping from place to place.'

As a comic book artist of some repute, Holden is nothing if not prolific. Having worked on comics as diverse as Fearless with US publisher Image Comics and meta-series Battlefields with revered Holywood-born comics luminary Garth Ennis, Numbercruncher will excite fans who have fallen in love with Holden's kinetic style.

With its heavily noir-influenced script, Holden originally envisioned adopting a gritty aesthetic with Numbercruncher to reflect the noir type story. However, upon reading Spurrier's script, Holden decided a change of tack was in order.

'The villain, Bastard Zane, struck me as quite a comedic character,' he explains. 'He’s really funny, just a stupid villain who wants to kick his way through everything. This contrasts with such a clever subtle hero, and makes for a lot of fun. So I went with a cartoony style.

'Zane is very violent. if you go too realistic with something like that it can end up too gory. But this style makes it a bit easier to read. Thankfully, when Simon saw my pages, he told me he couldn’t see it the original way anymore, which I took as a compliment.'

Between working on numerous projects in a freelance capacity, Holden has also been busy appearing at various events recently, talking about his work and taking part in demonstrations at the 2D Northern Ireland Comics Festival in Derry~Londonderry and Belfast’s Q-Con at Queen's University. Next up is DICE in Dublin in September. Does he consider making appearances a help or a hindrance?

'It depends where you are in your career,' says Holden. 'If you’re starting out, events like this are a great place to go to get further in the industry. Working on comics can be a very solitary profession, and there are no Christmas parties, so conventions are like the annual work do.

PJ Holden

'As your career develops they are great for letting people know what you’re up to. I hate to use the word fans – I really see them as people who know my work, but who I just haven’t chatted to yet – but it’s brilliant to get feedback and to meet people who enjoy what I do.'

Perhaps the most exciting development in the comic book industry in the past decade has been the emergence of digital comics – a process that Holden was in no small part responsible for kickstarting.

Having pitched Murderdrome to Apple – who ultimately rejected it due to ‘objectionable content’ – Holden published it with NBC. The story brought mainstream media attention to the Comic Reader App, kickstarting digital comics as we know them today.

'I think both traditional comics and digital comics will always exist,' Holden muses. 'The growth of digital comics has definitely markedly increased the readership of print comics, which is great, as the original worry was that it would eat into the print audience. I really thought it would go this way.

'I often buy digital comics and then get the hardback collections when they come out. Comic collectors don’t buy products just to consume them. A nice graphic novel is something you’ll keep on your shelf for decades. What I didn’t see coming was that digital comics have, peculiarly, increased the number of readers buying monthly single issue comics, as well as the collected editions.

'The comics industry had previously become quite marginalised – comic shops are difficult to find, and for new people to get into comics it had always been quite hard, especially with the volume of new comics coming out. It’s like a merry go round that never stops. But with digital comics coming out, it meant that people who didn’t really have the time to get into them before can use digital as a way in.'

With it becoming easier for fans to get into reading comics, can the same be said for artists?

'I’ve always said that the great thing about the comics industry is that all you need to get into it is a pencil and paper. And know that you're not alone. Find other people who want to make comics. These days you have conventions like 2D and DICE. I never had anything like that, and they’re brilliant for finding other people to work with. It’s all about finding people. Go online, go on forums, just do it.'

Sage advice from a Northern Irish artist who has very much conquered the industry. It's clear that Holden loves his job, and the feeling from critics is mutual – his latest title has already received several glowing reviews in the UK and elsewhere. And if Numbercruncher doesn’t satisfy your PJ Holden fix, he has also just finished a ten-page strip for the forthcoming Judge Dredd Megazine.

'I just love writing for 2000AD and the Megazine.' Holden beams before we part ways. 'Every time I hand something in I just think, "I can’t believe I’ve got away with it. They’ll never ask me again!"'

Numbercruncher is out now, published by Titan Comics.

Judge Dredd