1983. London. This is a brilliant time and place for motorcycles.
Your local dealership has Suzuki Katanas, Honda V-4 Interceptors, two-strokes and turbos. In December, the Kawasaki GPZ900R is unveiled and you stare at it. Is this what the future looks like? Street riders flog the new speed machines down Her Majesty’s roads. On a test track somewhere in Japan, the first GSX-Rs are howling.
Meanwhile, an artist named Andy Sparrow draws some comics featuring the future of motorcycling he’d like to see and Bike magazine picks up the new series. It’s called Bloodrunners, and a killer combination of bikes, women and danger make for huge success with young readers. Oh, and the art ain’t bad either. Sparrow’s signature style captures the zeitgeist of the underground London moto scene as he saw it, all translated into a city of tomorrow that’s equal parts Blade Runner and Akira.
Nearly 35 years later, Sparrow’s comics are well worth a second look (or maybe a first for most of us Yanks). Bloodrunners is very possibly the first sighting of streetfighters, almost certainly the first in print. There’s no telling if Sparrow invented the style altogether in his drawings, but he was certainly a prime mover in early streetfighter scene.
Sparrow drew outlandish machines with fat tires, single-sided swingarms and hub-steering front ends, but some of the more practical elements of the style he penned continue in a big way through naked bikes and “factory” streetfighters today. Purists, builders and customizers all over the world keep the tradition going strong with creations that almost could have sprung from the pages of Bloodrunners all those years ago.
The legend himself is still drawing, but he put down the pen and paper long enough for a Q&A with Common Tread.
Common Tread: We didn’t get Bike magazine over here in the States. What was Bloodrunners and when did it come out?
Andy Sparrow: Bloodrunners told the story of dispatch riders, led by the enigmatic Jack Shit, who ferried blood and live human organs, thus giving them a license to speed; but most of the time they sat around getting stoned, talking to their motorbikes. It was the Eighties, a mythical time when the streets of London were paved with gold and unicorns grazed in Kensington Gardens. At least in my drug haze it was. Don't do it kids! Those unicorns can turn nasty at any moment.
CT: Bloodrunners seems to be the first time the streetfighter style of motorcycle occurs in print. How did you start drawing these machines?
AS: They were just what I wanted bikes to be — super-fat tires, no fork, no pillion, underseat exhaust... and of course twin headlights like eyes.
CT: Do you think dispatch riders were the pioneers of the streetfighter we know today?
AS: Maybe, but it was more like if you crashed, which happened a lot, you didn't bother to replace the bits that broke, so you ended up with a very minimalist look.
CT: Naked bikes, streetfighters, rat bikes, whatever people want to call the motorcycles of Bloodrunners, what is it about this style that kept it going all these years? What’s in the DNA of these bikes that kept motorcyclists buying, building, and riding these machines?
AS: My first bike was a naked bike, but then it was just called a bike. Then they got fairings and people stripped them off to be renamed naked.
However great a bike is, I always want to improve on them. That normally starts with taking an angle grinder to the pillion. I think we all want to personalize our bikes, so it's more about our DNA than the bikes. Bikers are very individualistic.
CT: Postwar dispatch (despatch on your side of the Atlantic) riders didn’t have the most glamorous job, but you made them heroes with crazy motorcycles, high-stakes work, and a comic series that found a cult following. Did you work as a dispatch rider yourself?
AS: I did. I worked for Hotline in Ladbroke Grove and my controller was called Kevin. This was before the fax machine was invented, let alone the internet. What's a fax machine you ask? A magical box you could feed a document into and it would be transported electronically to another magical box where it would be reprinted illegibly and back-to-front. So as a teenager I could earn £500 a week ferrying contracts, plane tickets, cash and drugs around London.
CT: Did faster bikes mean more jobs and better pay?
AS: Not necessarily in London. I could piss on a big Japanese four on my Honda XL500 across town, because of the dirt bike's maneuverability, its ability to mount pavements and its skinniness, which allowed me to squeeze between the crawling traffic. Being friendly with your controller was the way to get more jobs, so you could be carrying four or five parcels simultaneously across town.
CT: There were real-life bloodrunners, weren’t there? Moving body parts and organs for hospitals?
AS: Yes. They are volunteers who do it for the love (and the nurses). Those weasley do-gooders tried to steal my name so I rang their doorbell and left a bag of burning poop on their doorstep.
CT: What was your proudest moment or favorite part of Bloodrunners?
AS: Getting a cease and desist letter on death-headed notepaper from the English chapter of the Hell’s Angels' president, Maz Harris.
CT: The life of a moto-comic strip artist: pros and cons? Besides occasional mail from the Hell’s Angels, that is.
AS: Pros — [motorcycle magazines] were really the only genre of monthly mags that devoted a page to comics. They paid the going rate but I deferred that and got a free ad beside my work to plug my T-shirts. I was selling 250 a week at the height of its popularity with its 250,000 readers so I was raking it in. A British comic offered me a job which I would have loved to work for, until they told me they paid £8 a page!
Cons — The oldies hated me because I took over from Ogri, the most beloved of all the moto-comics – and I was his biggest fan. But now they're all dead! Mawhaha! Plus, the mags have all gone out of business now, so the job title no longer exists.
CT: Any stories from your days as a dispatch rider end up in the pages of Bloodrunners?
AS: The first sample episode Red Express was the first true story that happened and inspired me to write it down. Then, having had my consciousness changed (to always being open to inspiration) the rest came easily. I'd always been able to draw, but writing was a real novelty.
Admittedly, I never carried a skeleton on my pillion, or drove over dog shit, slipped, and killed the very dog that pooped it; but I really wanted to! I was living in Amsterdam at the time and the place was covered in it, so there's where that inspiration came from. I think everyone is capable of being creative (in much less puerile ways than myself), they just need to allow that door to open and have the confidence to write their ideas down. Not all will be great, but occasionally you'll strike gold.
CT: If we want to see more Bloodrunners goodness, where can we find it?