Page 45′s Bryan Talbot Interview
For the first time since the publication of HEART OF EMPIRE six years ago, Bryan Talbot, the British comicbook creator of LUTHER ARKWRIGHT and THE TALE OF ONE BAD RAT, has not one but two major books coming out this year: an enormous, full-blown graphic novel called ALICE IN SUNDERLAND published on April 5th, and THE NAKED ARTIST, a mischievous prose book of scurrilous stories about the likes of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Jeff Smith. On top of this, he’s written a four-part supernatural comedy series being drawn by Mark Stafford called CHERUBS!.
So with Bryan’s signing at Page 45 coming up on Sunday April 8th (2pm-4pm), it’s probably worth having a chat with him…
You must have done hundreds of interviews over the years, so let’s cut to the chase: what have you absolutely no interest in talking about, either because you’re asked every interview, or the subject leaves you cold? (I’m thinking we might leave Celebrity Big Brother and the latest soccer results to one side, for a start…) Think of this as a Room 101 of interviews and interviewers — then watch as I totally fail to change my tactics accordingly.
Apart from the two things you mention, which I thoroughly agree with, I can’t think of anything. Mind’s a blank. That’s a good start. Perhaps extend soccer to cover all TV sport coverage. I’d rather gnaw my left leg off than watch sport, and sport on the news really annoys me. What a waste of space! The news usually goes something like this:
53 people were killed when a car bomb went off in…2 million are predicted to die in new African famine…new corruption allegations about the president of…the entire Pacific ocean was polluted today as…global warming is going to kill us all by…
Then they use up half of the time they could have used by talking of the important stuff above in detail with:
…two men hit a ball with sticks in a field today…some other men kicked a ball up and down a piece of land…two women hit a ball over a net at each other for an hour or so…a man ran faster than half a dozen others at…etc etc etc .
Oh bugger. I’ve talked about it.
Yes, but it’s so going into Room 101, so congratulations.
And it does bring us to the point that your works tend to contain a lot of searing, socio-political bite. THE TALE OF ONE BAD RAT was the story of one young woman living rough on the streets of London before finding sanctuary in the Lake District, and overcoming childhood abuse through inspiration in the works of Beatrix Potter. I’ve always described it to prospective readers as the sort of thing you’d see in BBC2 or Channel 4 dramas. HEART OF EMPIRE, on the other hand, was positively Shakespearian in scope (right down to the bawdiness), using an alternate timeline in which England never lost its Empire, but rather extended it through further conquest, only to squander its resources in decadent pursuits (although wouldn’t you just love to see some of that architecture being built?) whilst repressing dissent both inside the court and out on the streets.
Now everything, to me, is political, but yourself…? Can you comment at all on the above?
I feel the same. Everyone’s output and everyone’s perception is filtered through their own political ideology, whether they know it or not. Even if they claim to be non-political (a political stance in itself). My first comics were part of late 70s British counter-culture. Even so, I was very politically naïve, head in the clouds. My first graphic novel though (in fact, the first British graphic novel) THE ADVENTURES OF LUTHER ARKWRIGHT, first serialised in 1978, was written and drawn during the rise of Thatcherism and the extreme right, the time of the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League (for whom I did some propaganda sticker designs). The antifascist theme is quite explicit in Arkwright, as it was in V for Vendetta in the eighties: we all thought that we were in for the thousand-year Reich. Alan Moore, at the time, was even talking about moving out of Britain. That’s a laugh, seeing as he seldom moves from one end of his living room to the other, but it shows how seriously we all believed that we were destined for a fascist future back then. Heart of Empire is more of a general allegory of imperialism.
I suppose that I should state that I’m a socialist at this point but it’s something that I always find very depressing to do, what with living in the Socialist utopia of Tony bastard Blair. I still even vote Labour, for my sins, despite hating his guts, the invasion of Iraq and his Tory policies – but that’s only because my local MP is one of the good guys who can perhaps change things for the better – Chris Mullin: the man who was instrumental in freeing the Birmingham 6 and a good friend of my political hero, Tony Benn. If fact I met Tony Benn in Chris’s front garden last year (he lives in the same street as me) and was amazed at how totally cool Tony [Benn] was. It’s always strange meeting your heroes and you never know how they’ll act in real life. After that, I sent him a copy of ONE BAD RAT, through Chris, and he wrote me a wonderful letter back to say how much he’d enjoyed it.
That’s so cool. Wedgie’s one of my heroes too!
Before leaving politics, however briefly, I want to draw your mind back to Alan Moore getting right up of his sofa and organising the comicbook AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), which I thought tremendously brave and a real rallying cry. For those who don’t know about it (we found 100 extra copies in 2001, but they’re all gone now), I wrote: ”My god, how did Clause 28 ever happen? How the hell did Thatcher happen? Scary reminder of the way we were heading in the form of Alan Moore’s brave and timely publication of this anthology of stars, each standing up to be counted, ridiculing the atrocious homophobia instigated, legalised and fuelled by those bastard fucking Tories and the cheap, callous and cowardly media scum manipulating the masses. It starred Alan Moore, Dave Sim, Gerhard, Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot, Bill Sienkiewicz, Frank Miller, Posy Simmonds, Alexei Sale, Steve Bissette, Groc, Kevin O’Neill, Brian Bolland, Robert Crumb, Los Bros Hernandez etc. etc. etc.”
I think the four page strip FROM HOMOGENEOUS TO HONEY was the first time I worked with Neil Gaiman. We met up to talk about it in the Forbidden Planet basement in London and I sat in while Neil interviewed Alan Moore for Knave. This is when Neil was still trying to break into comics. Afterwards we took a taxi over to the Society of Strip Illustration meeting at the Chelsea Sketch Club. I’d met Neil a few times but it was the first time I really had a chance to talk with him. I also remember being at Alan’s house shortly before the book was published. His partners in Mad Love Publishing, his wife Phyllis and Debbie Delano were furious – they’d just addressed a radical lesbian group about the forthcoming publication and had been booed when they admitted that they were bisexual! Alan was turned down by several artists/writers he approached for AARGH! who actually agreed with Clause 28. He vowed he’d never work with any of them again. FROM HOMOGENEOUS TO HONEY was reprinted a month or so ago in an American SF prose anthology THE FUTURE IS QUEER by Arsenal Pulp Press.
I had no idea about the refusals. Actually I had no idea about the booing, either. That’s pretty foul but unfortunately not overly surprising: it’s amazing how intolerant the victims of intolerance can be. You lot, on the other hand – overwhelmingly straight – actually stood up not for yourselves, but for others in what was then (to purloin an apposite Nancy Mitford phrase) a pretty cold climate. And yet, and yet, since then I recall both Frank Miller and Dave Sim being accused of being homophobic, when nothing could be further from the truth. I swear, some people don’t even know how to read.
(The Neil Gaiman thing reminds me – yes, it’s plug time! – that there’s another rare Neil Gaiman strip in EX-DIRECTORY: THE SECRET FILES OF BRYAN TALBOT which we’ve just had back in @ £2-50 a pop.)
Speaking of not knowing how to read, I remember Garth Ennis’ TRUE FAITH being forced out of publication at one point by our lovely Concerned Christian militants, because it involved the burning of churches. You’d have thought Garth was encouraging it when, again, nothing could be further from the truth if you actually bothered to read the book. Have you ever received hate mail, fallen prey to censorship of any kind, or been appalled at particular instances you’ve witnessed?
Going by my admittedly senile memory, it was actually IPC’s sheer chickenshittiness that was responsible for TRUE FAITH being pulled, after one of the management read Grant Morrison’s intro, which began “Christianity or shit? Can you tell the difference?” Nothing to do with the story or complaints, they just freaked and withdrew the book in a pre-emptive own-goal strike. Perhaps you’ve heard otherwise? If so, I’d love to hear.
No, I’m sure you’re right: my memory’s worse.
I’m happy to say that I’ve never received hate mail – not even when I had Lady Di in HEART OF EMPIRE as a drooling straitjacketted imbecile. I was a bit worried about that. I’d written the script before she was killed, when the general public perception of her was of a dotty aristo bimbo with a terrible choice in boyfriends. In the week I had to draw that sequence, she died and I had to decide whether to do it as written, faced with the outpouring of “mob grief” at the time.
I’ve only ever been censored by over-zealous editors. Erstwhile 2000AD art editor Robin Smith often used to take a bottle of process white to my blood splatter effects in Nemesis, excepting one time when he happened to be on holiday when the artwork came in for the notorious ‘Goth massacre” sequence in Nemesis Book 3. He was furious when he returned, to find that it had been printed as received. Never had a single complaint from readers though.
The daftest piece of censorship was in the issue of FABLES I did. DC decided to censor a scene which, in the script, I was instructed to draw as “really hot and dirty sex” or something along those lines. When it appeared in print, the drawing had been crudely re-worked in the DC studio to hide a slight curve of bottom. Crackers. They’d actually paid money for somebody to do this.
The original “really hot and dirty sex”
The crudely censored end product
In my own work – ARKWRIGHT etc, I’ve never been censored. I thought that I might have been in HEART OF EMPIRE – there’s one scene showing the Queen being multiply penetrated – but it went through without complaint from editorial and is even available in libraries across the US and UK.
Okay, well here’s something for you. Although I reference Shakespeare with regards to HEART OF EMPIRE (above) someone recently emailed us to ask if I could think of any British comicbook creators who have tackled British Imperialism or national heavy-handedness (police state etc.), particularly in a Hogarthian manner…
[Editors note: William Hogarth was the 18th Century British artist who produced canvases which, when read in sequence, told stories like The Rake's Progress and The Harlot's Progress. Engraved versions were then produced as limited edition portfolios. They were almost universally condemned by the establishment because their subject matter - bawdy (and way too accurate) social satire - was considered inappropriate for Fine Art. Which is interesting because, until recently, comics have also been condemned almost universally by the establishment. And Hogarth's sequential art was, by definition, comics.]
…And the person who sprang to mind immediately was you. HEART OF EMPIRE fits the centre of his particular Venn Diagram exactly. Were you thinking of Hogarth at all? It’s a majestically venomous book in many ways. What was under your skin at the time?
There’s a scene in HofE in “Hogarth Alley”, a tribute to the godfather of British Comics and the scene in Bedlam is directly inspired by plate seven of THE RAKE’S PROGRESS. If you look at the large panel where Victoria enters the cell area, you’ll see “Bill Hogarth was here” written on the wall to the left. The old man on the stairs who looks like he’s pushing his thumbs together is doing something you can see in the background of a print from THE HARLOT’S PROGRESS series – squashing lice between his nails. I love the way Hogarth tells a whole story with each illustration – by reading the detail, you know what’s happened previously and what’s about to happen. He used to describe himself as the “author” rather than the artist of these plates. Of course, many of the images and symbols that would have been easily understood by his contemporary readers need interpretation today. In ALICE IN SUNDERLAND, there’s a sequence where I take the reader through two of his classic and contrasting prints, GIN LANE and BEER STREET, interpreting the detail to tell the story to a modern audience. The inking style of Arkwright is partly derived from his engraving techniques.
But, yes you’re right – Hogarth saw no distinction between high and low art. He drew from the street life all around him, not just the high and mighty. He constantly lampoons hypocrisy, corruption and credulity. From what I remember, he tried to found an academy of Art based on egalitarian principles, only to have it taken away from him and made into the Royal Academy of Art by Sir Joshua Reynolds and others.
He is like Shakespeare in that he’ll deal with both royalty and peasantry in the same story. In HEART OF EMPIRE, Nelly Winterton is very definitely following a Shakespearian tradition – that of the tavern woman, the bawd or prostitute, like Doll Tearsheet in HENRY IV and Mistress Overdone in MEASURE FOR MEASURE. Like his ‘rude mechanicals” in MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM or Pistol and co in HENRY V, she has a funny way of using language, often making up the words. When Ellie De Ville was lettering her speech balloons, she’d very often correct the words and I’d have to get her to reletter them. Harry Fairfax is also part of this tradition and he even uses a couple of Shakespeare’s terms for farts, such as “lincolnshire bagpipes”. In HofE, when he’s first described by Victoria, did you notice that it’s a paraphrase of the “Alas poor Yorick” speech from HAMLET? In fact, there’s lots of Shakespearian references in the book. Two of Victoria’s names are Cordelia and Miranda.
As for “majestically venomous”, I’ll take it as a compliment!
[Laughs] Yeah, run with it!
I want to move on to ALICE IN SUNDERLAND almost immediately, but I’d like to pursue the question of what was inspiring or provoking you into writing about the British Empire – much of which we’d since been relieved of – and national totalitarianism at that precise time. I know the book wasn’t published until 2001, but the monthly comic it collected came out earlier than that, and one has to assume the project took some time between genesis, execution, then publication. Anything to do with the euphemistically titled Criminal Justice Bill and Public Order Act of 1994? [Editor's note - google, by all means, I don't want to prescribe a particular document for fear of personal bias... for once!]
It was nothing to do with it, nor the British Empire come to that. It was a story portraying empires as being fundamentally evil and what I really had in mind was American Imperialism.
When we eventually see the rapacious, brainless monster leech that is the eponymous Heart of Empire, it turns the whole story into an allegory. It makes concrete my correlation (in the story) of nationalism with the urge to conquer, possess, oppress and suck dry, as all empires have done to a greater or lesser degree.
In the nineties I was struck by a news report on the then on-going genocide in the Balkans. On the wall of a bombed-out house, all of whose inhabitants had been brutally slaughtered, was spray painted “The Serbian Empire will reach Japan”. This staggeringly simpleminded expression of the aggressive and possessive drive that is the basis of empire is frightening because the pathetic bastard who’d written it would be longing for this impossibility, despite the unlimited carnage that it would obviously involve, from the bottom of his heart.
The sooner the concept of nationality is thrown into the rubbish bin of history and all nations are subsumed into a united world state that works for all our best interests, as idealised in Arkwright’s and HofE’s Zero Zero parallel, won’t be soon enough for me. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of one’s cultural roots or loving one’s native countryside, but we must grow out of jingoism.
Cultural pride provides the perfect link to your new magnum opus, ALICE IN SUNDERLAND, due out here at the beginning of April. The titular pun alone is a brilliant piece of marketing. Even without an image, I knew instinctively that it was about two of my favourite books of all time, “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” and “Through The Looking Glass,” and their connection to your home city of Sunderland in North East England. To this ignorant posho, it’s also an inherently comical title, because Sunderland doesn’t immediately conjure up images of artistic finesse – I just think of dockyards! Go on, smack me around a little.
No, it is funny – even to people in Sunderland. And, yes, before I moved here, that was my image of the city. The shipbuilding’s all gone now though after Thatcher shut down the yards at the end of the 80s. The Clyde shipbuilders received a huge EEC grant – on condition that Britain lost a major shipbuilding port and that was the end of around seven centuries of shipbuilding here. Most of the port’s now lawns, university buildings, a marina and a sculpture trail.
I’d been wanting to do something based around Alice for about twenty years. In fact, my second published comic, Brainstorm 2 in 1976 was a homage to THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS and, like Carroll’s story, was based around a chess game. When I moved to Sunderland, about nine years ago, I suddenly discovered that the city had many links to both Carroll and Alice Liddell’s family and parts of the Alice stories, including JABBERWOCKY, the most famous nonsense poem in the English language, were written here.
Then I started reading books on the place and was amazed to discover how immensely rich the history of Sunderland was. This is the place where, in the seventh century, the Venerable Bede, the father of English history and Literature, conceived the English nation. It’s the very cradle of English consciousness. He also established BC and AD as a dating system – which is why we’re now living in the year 2007.
In Carroll’s time Sunderland was the biggest shipbuilding port in the world – a “forest of masts” – producing more ships than all the other UK ports combined, and he’d often visit the shipyards with his uncle, who was the customs officer here.
The most original and fully-formed British dragon myth, the Legend of the Lambton Worm, is set very firmly in at Worm Hill in Sunderland. This didn’t just influence Bram Stoker’s LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM but also JABBERWOCKY and Jeff Smith’s ROSE, among others.
I’d had another notion, also for about twenty years, of doing a comic story within the setting of a theatrical performance. Shortly after moving here I visited The Sunderland Empire for the first time. It’s the biggest theatre between Manchester and Edinburgh and a wonderful Edwardian palace of varieties – so I had a setting for the book. Incidentally, Sid James died on stage here and supposedly haunts the place so I have his ghost as a minor character.
I could go on, but it’s all in book, you’ll see. Someone commented that it’s a good job that I hadn’t moved to Milton Keynes as the book would have only been ten pages long.
While I was writing the book I discovered that the Shadows recorded an instrumental in the sixties titled ALICE IN SUNDERLAND, so the joke’s been around for a while.
So I’ve been saved a beating, but now we’re going to get the residents of Milton Keynes writing in!
From what I’ve seen on the book’s dedicated website, both the narrative structure and the visuals themselves are mind-blowing. Now, sure, over the years you’ve adjusted certain elements of your style to suit the project in hand, but here… It’s almost as if you’ve thrown open your artistic toy box, used everything in there, then invented some new ones as well. Can you give us an idea of your approach to the subject matter?
You know, so that I can crib it when it comes to my review? ;)
Feel free. But I’m not sure that I can be of any help in that department. Pretty early on I decided to vary the style of comic storytelling to suit each story – something inspired by the Sunderland Empire being a “palace of varieties” and that the book had to be somehow a “variety performance” – but my approach as to which style I chose was purely intuitive – in that each story dictated its own style so immediately that there was no question of me deciding between different options. The ghost story of THE CAULD LAD OF HYLTON was obviously meant for a 50s horror comic treatment. The story of Sunderland hero Jack Crawford – a national hero in the 18th century and the person who gave the phrase “to nail your colours to the mast” to the language by his actions was – what else? – to be done in a BOYS’ OWN ADVENTURE style. THE LEGEND OF THE LAMBTON WORM, the longest self-contained story in the book – demanded an Arts and Crafts style, probably because the first time I came across it, decades before, was in a 1900s illustrated fairy tale book. Yes, I know that there were never any Arts and Crafts comics but I tried to write and draw it as if there were.
A major recurring element in the book is a “pilgrimage” through Sunderland, from my house in St Bede’s Terrace, through the city to Whitburn on its northern border, where Carroll used to stay with his cousins for several months every year for many years. I tell the story of the history of the city in the course of this journey, each stage seemingly organically sparked off by locations in the journey. After the “interval” in the middle (see – it’s like going to the theatre!) the pilgrimage continues in the form of a boat trip up the river Wear (mirroring Carroll’s boat trip where he purportedly first told the story of ALICE IN WONDERLAND) to Durham, to the cathedral and the tomb of the Venerable Bede. One of the major themes of the book is the brevity of life, mortality. I’m getting old. Indulge me. I tried to tell this pilgrimage, an interweaving element of the book, in a documentary style, using cartoons of myself juxtaposed against digitally manipulated photographic images of the journey. I didn’t want these images to look “realistic” as I’m painting magical versions of the place, doing with pictures what prose writers do with words.
Anyhow, you get the picture. If there’s anything that I’m proud of with this book, it’s the structure, the artifice that holds everything together. I spent a lot of time on it (about two months) before drawing and writing a single thing. I’m also very pleased at the craft, the storytelling, each individual sequence and how I’ve put it together. BUT…it’s the first piece of work I’ve ever done that I’m totally nervous about. I’m worried about it, have been since I started it and it’s getting worse the closer that it gets to the publication date. Because it’s like nothing I can think of. It’s a bit like UNDERSTANDING COMICS in a few sections where I’m looking at the medium used for telling these stories. The book is about storytelling and myth and history. So I point out aspects of the medium – the roughs, the pencils, the inks, the typed script, where appropriate – and the history of British comics. This actually ties in with Carroll as I found out while researching the book that the makers of John Tenniel’s plates, the Dalziel Brothers, were also the publishers of what’s usually considered the first British comic book, ALLY SLOPER’S HALF-HOLIDAY. So, yes, I’m just worried that people won’t know what to make of it. I’m sure they’ll have to read at least the first hundred pages before they can see where it’s going and up till then they’ll be thinking “what the hell is this all about?” It’s terrifying!
Dude, in the UK you’ve been picked up by Jonathan fucking Cape. That’s a major Mainstream prose publisher, with some of the finest graphic novels under their belt. I can’t believe you have doubts. And your own readers (those who’ve followed you from LUTHER to ONE BAD RAT) aren’t stupid; the stoopids are going to have ditched you long ago. I happen to know, from the stream of emails since the announcement of publication, that your current readers are looking forward to being challenged, whilst we so need out there more graphic novels like Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME that mess about with narrative structure and provide challenging subject matter and delivery in a way that prose almost takes for granted.
I mean, for God’s sake, go all the way back to Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” finished in – what? – 1767? I have a feeling you’re about to do for comics what Sterne did for the novel. I remember way back in the British Comics Magazine “Ark” (issue #23, 24? of the top of my head), you demanding that comics grow the fuck up. Thank you for helping out in that department.
Err, that’s not really a question, is it?
So I’ll ask two: you’ve got to be pleased that your book will, via Jonathan Cape, go straight into all the UK book shops where the Real Mainstream hang out (the poster in our window, with Tom’s witty and cunning appendages, is already turning so many High Street heads…), and secondly you’ve got to be pleased, after so many years’ gestation period, to be rid of the damn thing! ”There, that’s it! I’ve finished the fucker! Make of it what you will!”
Yes, I’m pleased to see the back of it. It was damned hard work. I suppose that I’m worrying that people will be expecting one thing and get another. It’s not an academic work (it’s subtitled ‘An Entertainment’ to put that message firmly across). But there are still very few people who’ve actually read it so I just don’t know how it’ll go down. My publisher at Cape is Dan Franklin – Salman Rushdie’s editor for God’s sake – so I suppose I should trust his judgement but even he’s not said a word to me about what he thinks of it. He obviously liked it enough to publish it. Same thing with Mike Richardson at Dark Horse. The only other people who’ve read it are friends, so I certainly don’t think that their comments can be taken as unbiased.
And yes, I’m pleased that it’ll be going into into mainstream bookstores. Not to dis Dark Horse, I’m glad that they’re publishing it, but Denis Kitchen, who agented the book in the US, showed it to every American mainstream publisher of graphic novels and they all turned it down for the same reason: “It’s too British”.
I’m hoping that it’ll get mainstream attention over here. No problem with coverage here in the north east – there’s even been articles already. It’ll be interesting to see if national publications pick up on it. It does have a section in COMICS BRITANNIA. That’s a three-part, three-hour documentary on British comics currently being made by the BBC.
Plus you’ve already been invited to address The Lewis Carroll Society of North America at Columbia University in New York, and they haven’t even read the book yet. Perhaps it’s not too British for America after all?
It’s as British as ALICE – and they are the Lewis Carroll Society after all. The amazing thing about that gig is that it’s on the 75th anniversary of Columbia University’s award of a doctorate to Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell), on the same stage. I actually illustrate the scene in the book.
I’m beginning to wonder what isn’t in there.
Well, what have I not mentioned? George Formby’s in there. Parts of the book are autobiographical. One bit is an anti-racist polemic, drawn in quick scribbles on pages of torn notepaper. One section is like a MAD magazine strip from the 60s, illustrating each line from Henry V’s speech before Harfleur absolutely literally. Er…I could go on…
I usually do.
At this point little would surprise me, so I’m half-expecting to see pages depicting Bryan Talbot parading around the ALICE IN SUNDERLAND exhibition and book launch on April 4th, with me running round on a laptop emailing you fresh questions which immediately form part of the graphic novel. Exhibition details, please? When, where, how much stuff on show?
There are two. The first one is at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art on Fawcett Street in Sunderland (0191 5141235) from March 22 to 14th April. This features four seven-page sequences from the book as A3 prints along with the original art components (the pages were mainly composed on computer). I thought it would be a nice thing to do, to start things off in Sunderland. The exhibition’s going to be opened by the mayor in his robe and chain and everything. The other is at the London Cartoon Art Museum in Little Russell Street (tel 020 7580 8155) from 5th April to the 1st July. This is going to be a lot bigger (not sure exactly how big, but they’ve taken dozens of pages and drawings).
…And opened by Richard O’Brien! I’m hoping to get my ass down there.
Returning to the issue of feedback, though, Dave Sim (CEREBUS) maintained that it was difficult enough to work in virtual isolation on a monthly comic and then wait several months before it’s published. How long were you working on ALICE? Was there ever a point when you thought it might never be finished? And – excuse the intrusion – in practical terms, how do you keep the wolf from the door when you’re investing so much time on one epic project rather than working (for hire or otherwise) on a monthly? Prose publishers offer substantial advances before their signed writer’s necessarily written a word, but as far as I’m aware, comicbook publishers don’t.
Usually I’m paid a page rate for scripting, pencilling and inking as I go along. This happened with Bad Rat and HofE, and Dark Horse published the books as comic series first to recoup this advance. With ALICE, however, my arrangement all went pear-shaped. I started work on the book after agreeing a page rate with a publisher who very quickly ran into cash-flow problems and only paid sporadically, and then not very much, for a year or so. He’d broken the agreement we had so I walked. It was amicable enough – I paid him back a some of the advance and he called the rest a kill fee. This left me with about a quarter of the book done and no publisher so I had to decide whether to shelve it or plough on. Working on a substantial graphic novel, there’s a hell of a lot that you have to hold together in your head. I knew if I started work on something else, it would start to go so I decided to go ahead and finish it.
It’s hard to say exactly how long it took because I spent a lot of time researching the subjects (there’s a list of source books at the end of ALICE) and making copious notes before starting the script, which took about six months… Then it took about three or four years to draw, reworking and improving the script all the while. A couple of times a year I receive royalty cheques from previous work – mainly Bad Rat, Arkwright and Sandman – but these aren’t enough to live on and my business account was well overdrawn. Fortunately, my wife Mary supported me while I finished the book. She’s a PHd and a reader in Media and Culture at Sunderland University, the reason we moved here in the first place. Also, a millionaire comic art collector loaned me some cash to pay off the overdraft.
It’s not an experience I want to repeat. The next graphic novel that I want to do is currently a twelve-page proposal with a couple of sample visuals and will stay like that till I find a publisher for it.
But in the meantime, you’ve written two books, neither of which you’re illustrating. Let’s talk about the one that’s furthest away first, the comic series CHERUBS!. Is it a relief to let the art chores go to someone else, or do you feel possessive?
Actually they’re both out in June (not sure of the specific dates but I’m hoping they are both out in time for the San Diego con).
I’ve only written comics twice before, two mini-series, that have been drawn by other people and both times I was disappointed for reasons I won’t bore you with here. With CHERUBS! I knew that I wanted it to be drawn in a very cool, very hip and cartoony style and I knew that’s exactly what Mark Stafford can deliver. He’s probably the UK’s hottest indy comic cartoonist and he’s doing a fantastic job on the book. Here’s his artwork for the cover of the first issue.
Mark’s used to doing short strips and not experienced at pacing longer comics so, as well as scripting the book, I’ve also done all the page breakdowns for each issue, the panel layouts (at his request) so I am being very hands-on. No, don’t say control-freak Stephen, that’s rude.
CHERUBS! is a really fun project. It’s daft, it’s silly, it’s a completely irreverent comedy-adventure. In fact, I was thinking of subtitling it “The Divine Comedy-Adventure” – do you think many people would get the joke? As it is, I’m calling each issue “Cantica I” etc and the individual chapters in each issue “cantos”.
It’s the first part of a twelve-issue story arc but, rather than attempt the whole thing in one go, my idea was to put it out as three self-contained four-part miniseries. That way we can see how the first cantica does before continuing with the rest. Also, they can be collected into three volumes as we go along. Well, that sort of thing worked for Jeff Smith and if it’s good enough for Jeff…
I’m sure they’d get the joke if told us it was one — and now you have, so bless you. We can all pretend we knew it all along!
There’s been a thread running through recent letter columns in the Page 45 mailshots, where both readers and myself have been confessing to things we’ve only just got, particularly the 2000AD puns like “Sinister Dexter” and “Rojaws & Hammerstein”. If I’d been told to look for puns there, I’d have got them… well, not instantly, but in a couple of minutes!
See, you can’t even keep daft comedies simple, can you? You just have to go and get all arty on our asses.
People will only get Sinister Dexter if they’ve read anything about heraldry – but surely most people have heard of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”? Perhaps I shouldn’t bother with it as, if you don’t get the joke, “The Divine Comedy-Adventure” just sounds soppy.
Christ, don’t listen to me! You might even get some Indie music kids picking it up by mistake.
Now, I can see we’ve got what looks like some less then cherubic cherubs. What else can you tell us?
They all talk like characters from South Park – or rather, they talk in a register somewhere between that and Bart Simpson – not QUITE as rude as SP. They’re stuck in heaven, bored witless – the last time they were on active service on earth was during the Renaissance, when they posed for painters and Baroque sculptors and the like and had a great time. Suddenly they’re put in the frame for the massacre of the High Council of Heaven and they have to escape and follow the murderer to earth to prove their innocence.
It’s a very fast-paced story – no padding whatsoever. It really shifts.
Part of its humour comes from the cherubim having to deal with physicality – they come from somewhere where nobody gets hungry, where nobody belches or farts or gets a hangover or a boner. On Earth, they have to deal with all this stuff. They find themselves in New York, where there’s a whole supernatural underworld existing beneath human reality and where the Devil is about to set up his headquarters for the End of Days. In the first cantica (nice term for a mini-series, eh?) they’re mainly having to deal with vampires but there are also some fairy hookers from Queen Titania’s Bower of Bliss in the fourth issue. The series is playing with supernatural stereotypes and is stuffed full of movie references and parodies – everything from Terminator, the Exorcist, Aliens, Robocop, the Warriors, Ghostbusters, Blade and Buffy to Woody Allen films. You name it, it’s probably in there. Fun project.
And there’s more mischief on its way in the form of your forthcoming prose book of scandal, NAKED ARTIST, yes? There’s no shortage of hearsay gossip doing the rounds on the comicbook circuit regarding creators and their drunken indiscretions…
… And don’t get me wrong, as I recently confessed in the Page 45 mailshot, I’ve committed so many drunken faux pas now with creators that we should have some sort of ASTRO CITY sign outside our door saying: “You are now leaving Page 45. Professionalism can no longer even be spelled. Please drive carefully or forget you were ever here.”
… But to put that sort of thing in print, man! Are you out of your mind, or do I have to remind you what the word “litigation” means?
Most comic creators want these stories spread around. It adds to their fame and notoriety. Who do you think told me most of them in the first place? There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, dear boy, and that’s not being talked about, said the divine Oscar. I’ve told most of the people in the book that I’m telling their stories and even sent some of them the text to OK. In other stories, the word “allegedly” crops up quite often. I also make the point several times that I’m not saying that any of these stories are literally true. What is true is that they are told – the urban legends of the comic community, the sort of outrageous anecdotes that are told late at night in the convention pro bar. I make the point that they evolve in the telling, sometimes changing location or even protagonist between one telling and the next and I sometimes even recount the original incident, the seed from which the subsequent legend grew.
Like CHERUBS!, THE NAKED ARTIST is a fun book and not to be taken too seriously. And I’m never intentionally nasty about anyone. Even with the likes of Igor Goldkind, I mitigate their behaviour by describing it in a humorous and basically nice way. Believe me, I could have related some extremely obnoxious things about a few of them had I wanted. And I WILL if they sue!
It just occurred to me one morning, I was having a shower as it happens, that I knew a whole bunch of tales that are mostly unheard of by comic fans about their heroes. When I got downstairs, I grabbed an A4 pad of paper and proceeded to fill it with two columns of story titles, beginning with my own “mad fan” experience. After that, I kept listing more, as they occurred to me, and started phoning other pros to ask them what their favourites were. As soon as I finished ALICE, I typed them all up, arranging them into a structure based on story theme. I took me less than a month – it’s only just over 40,000 words. The final touch – a stroke of genius I thought – was to ask my old mate Hunt Emerson to do the illustrations. I knew he’d be ideal and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Here’s his cover illustration.
And I think the book works: one day the next-door neighbour came around while I was in the middle of writing a section. I got him a cold beer and he asked me what I was working on. I turned the screen to him and left him to read a little. Within a few minutes, he was nearly spraying beer all over it. He was literally crying with laughter. And he’d never even heard of the people I was talking about. It’s not all funny though – well, it is mostly – but there are a couple of bits that are just downright weird, or even simply interesting, such as stuff about foreign comic festivals – and I do have a little section on Page 45 and how it is my favourite comic store and can other people start one like it please, pretty please?
I’m sorry, but I’ve heard they’re utter bobbins. Particularly that posho smart-arse.
But at the risk (and I’ll take it) of blatantly fishing for compliments, what drives you to campaign so hard and so often for Page 45? I’m constantly hearing from customers who’ve witnessed you on convention panels talking about us over and over again, and I thank you. But it’s supposed to be the other way round: we’re here to promote the best creators, not creators taking the time and effort (and indeed the risk of alienating other stores) by promoting a particular comic shop.
Some creators furnish us with brilliant and diverse comicbook material to sell, and that absolutely is their job done. We can take it from there, thank you very much indeed. Yet a few of you – like Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, Gary Spencer-Millidge and Warren Ellis (notice how I choose the ones that big-up Page 45!) – seem to care not just about the health of the medium, but about the state of the industry…
I always have done. In the early to mid eighties I did a slide show and talk at libraries and universities about the history of comics, about the evolution of the medium – a mini evangelical crusade designed to spread comics consciousness. The message of the talk was that comics have now matured to the form which is the future of the comic strip – the graphic novel! At that time, graphic novels [or "collected editions" - whatever you want to call them - ed.] only appeared sporadically. Now, there are stores like Page 45 (the first I think) that specialise in them. So, damn right, I support the store. I’ve been predicting this situation for a long time and I want it to get even better. I once did “the future is the graphic novel” talk at a London University, the audience of which included a young and impressionable student named Dave McKean. He never mentions that in bloody interviews! I still do talks aimed at broadening the readership of comics, these days Powerpoint presentations based around my own work. I’ve done the BAD RAT talk over fifty times – in libraries, unis, colleges and conventions all over the UK and in Italy, the USA, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Mainland China. The one in China was the oddest – it was given untranslated to about 500 students and lecturers, all of whom could speak English, and I was scrutinised throughout the talk by the official government communist party representative in the front row, in case I said anything subversive!
Well, I’m stunned at how much progress the medium and industry has made in terms of mainstream recognition over the last fifteen years – I recall you predicting it, as did Mark and I, although I’ll own now that I’m not sure how much was bluff and wishful thinking on our part. There’s still a long battle ahead, if not on an academic level – the coverage in the papers and tv is growing increasingly visible – then on the street level, using a show-and-tell strategy, which is why Page 45 opened right in the heart of Nottingham’s city centre – to lure new people in.
How do you see the state of play now, as opposed to then? What more needs to be done?
Then, every time you’d see an article about an adult graphic novel, the headline was “WHAM! POW!SPLAT! COMICS AREN’T FOR KIDS ANYMORE!” Now they are so much a part of cultural life this approach is redundant. Then, whenever a newspaper wanted a “expert” to comment on a comics related story, they’d phone up eccentric old duffer Denis Gifford, whose interest in comics stopped at those published around 1960. Now they contact sexy, articulate and knowledgeable Paul Gravett.
[Most definitely, all hail Paul Gravett! - ed.]
Then there were no graphic novel sections in ordinary bookstores or libraries. It’s taken a long while to build up a big enough backlog of good books to make these viable.
The first graphic novel boom couldn’t be sustained simply because there weren’t enough quality titles to cultivate the growing interest in them. In an attempt to cash in, trendy publishers attempted to manufacture GNs by teaming up “real” novelists and highly-paid book cover illustrators, with disastrous results. These people had no knowledge of comic history or grammar and produced, for the most part, painfully unreadable pig’s ears of books. To make matters worse, superhero comic companies jumped on the bandwagon, slapping together half a dozen issues of their production-line monthly titles and calling them graphic novels. People who’d been introduced to the medium and read, for example, WATCHMEN bought these collections of pap expecting to get more of the same and were predictably disappointed and immediately had all their old prejudices about comics confirmed. Now there are enough titles to sustain the steady growth. There are more and better comics being produced today than ever in the medium’s history and that’s exactly what the industry needs. Plus more stores like Page 45 to sell them!
I thank you. [Laughs]
It’s funny, I wrote almost exactly the same thing in a recent Page 45 Mailshot. We’re in a very different position now, where the Mainstream prose publishers trust the comicbook creators like Alison Bechdel, Simone Lia and yourself to do their thing, whilst over the last ten years we (as in, comicbook publishers like Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, and Fantagraphics – we’re all in the same boat together) have built up an enormously impressive back catalogue of our own that spans politics to travel to humour to autobiography. Sometimes all in the same work, like Guy Delisle’s PYONG YANG or SHENZHEN!
I know you do read comics (whereas several comicbook creators I could name don’t – which I find as odd as a musician never bothering to explore other musicians’ output), so what have you rated in the last three or four years? And yes, now that I come to think of it, where do you get them from? Because I know you pick up stuff at Page 45 when you come round (and we have the gall to charge you for it, albeit at staff rates!!!), but you don’t do mail order with us!
Ha! I’ll probably pick some books up while I’m down, depending upon whether I get the ones I want as freebies in other stores on the signing tour first (they’re not all as tight as you). Apart from asking Jonathan Cape for occasional comps, I mainly get them from a friend who is a partner in the BIG PLANET COMICS chain in Washington, Greg Bennett. Their store in Bethesda specialises in graphic novels and was directly inspired by Greg’s visit to Page 45 (something I believe I’ve mentioned to you in the past). A couple of times a year, he ships me any books I may be interested in for free (feel guilty yet?) and usually bungs in quite a few more that he thinks I’ll like.
What have I enjoyed over the last three or four years? Now you’re testing my failing memory. Anything by Joe Sacco (just got THE FIXER but not read it yet). The complete hardback BONE was a beautiful book, both in fluid storytelling and excellent production values. One of the best – probably THE best – was GEMMA BOVARY by Posy Simmonds. PERSEPOLIS was very good, despite the naïve style. It told the story well and involved the reader with the characters. I enjoyed both BLANKETS and FUN HOME but had little problems with both. Blankets is very elegant in its storytelling but I felt it lacked depth, despite its humungous page count. So – this teenager fancies this bird and it doesn’t work out? Hmm. Yes. Teenagers sure have it tough. Fun Home, on the other hand, had real depth and bite and a very clever structure but I was continually annoyed by Bechdel’s technique of often repeating in the panel image what was being described in the text box. This was also my complaint with Harvey Pekar’s THE QUITTER, only more so. In that one, you could have discarded Dean Haspiel’s images altogether, as nice as they were, and the story would have remained intact. All the images added to the artefact were atmosphere. I don’t tend to read pamphlet comics very often (and note – I’m not using this as a derogatory term, though some comic artists take it as such. “Pamphlet” is the most accurate term to use to distinguish them from GNs. Check the dictionary definition) but – bugger! What was I talking about? Oh yeah, I have been enjoying the FRED THE CLOWN comics after meeting Roger Langridge and being given a bunch. They’re brilliant. Very funny. Very clever. Recently read the complete BLACK HOLE by Charles Burns. Excellent art and storytelling, if a bit (or, rather, a lot!) grim. I read and enjoyed ROCKETO by Frank Espinosa, despite the lack of clarity in some of the storytelling because of his fast and very fluid style. This style works fantastically well in imbuing the images with movement. Unbelievably well – it practically zooms across the page – but on several occasions I was brought to an abrupt halt. I had to stop and think “what the f*****g hell’s going on in that panel?” which breaks the spell – it destroys the illusion that this story is passing before your eyes, in a way similar to bad lettering balloon placement, when you have to stop reading and pull back, out of the story, to make sense of things. Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s LOST GIRLS is worth reading but, after waiting for it for sixteen years, was a disappointment. That’s my problem, not the book’s. I’d built it up in my mind to be the comic equivalent of WAR AND PEACE, only with sex, and it wasn’t. Not that I’ve ever read WAR AND PEACE…The best thing about WIMBLEDON GREEN was the cover. Absolutely incredible! Oh. I’ve just realised that I’ve been picking holes in GNs I’ve really rated. OK. No more crits. Good graphic novels, er…SCARLET TRACES by Ian Edginton and Matt Brooker, LOUIS by Metaphrog, THE SCRIBBLER by Dan Schaffer (whose DOGWITCH series of pamphlet comics is different but also very cool – a very punk, irreverent sensibility, very clever and with a with real hard edge), A CHILD’S LIFE by Phoebe Glockner, PICTURES THAT TICK by Dave McKean, the new LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND collection – the thing’s about three feet high and absolutely wonderful!
Blimey, “Graphic Novel” is such a naff term isn’t it? I use it myself, all the time – people know what it means, it was devised as a marketing term – but it’s such an inadequate word to describe the form. PICTURES THAT TICK, or A CONTRACT WITH GOD, if it comes to that, aren’t “novels” by any sense of the word, they’re short story collections. Autobiographies – FUN HOME, for example – are described as graphic novels. Yes, there’s even a category – “Non-fiction graphic novels”! Some books are too short to be a “novel” – a novella at best. Alan Moore calls his GNs “big comics”. That’s partly to deflate any implications of pretension but it’s primarily designed to irritate proponents of “graphic novel”. It’s just as inaccurate and could just as easily describe a sequential mural. Anyway, many “comics” aren’t intended to be funny. Seems as if we’re stuck with “graphic novel”. Innit?
I’m not even embarrassed by the term “comic”. ”Fine, we sell comics, but let me just help your change you mind about what comics are…”
Oh, and parenthetically (because that last sentence is going somewhere), you mention GEMMA BOVARY and I can’t wait to sell the collection of Posy Simmond’s most recent work serialised in The Guardian, TAMARA DREWE: it’s prime British fiction. I think you know Posy didn’t you? Said she was keen to sign at Page 45? Do you know when the release is planned? Because we are so having Posy over for that.
Don’t know when the book is out. She’ll probably be at the ALICE launch but I could phone her beforehand if you like.
[Editor's Note: Bryan was as good as his word and the pair signed at Page 45 the following Christmas.]
I’m surprised you didn’t mention Véronique Tanaka’s METRONOME. I know you’re designing the graphic novel version of the animation for NBM next year…
No, you’ve got it the wrong way around. She designed and completed the artwork for the graphic novel last summer and sent me all the files on disc. It occurred to me that it would be almost as good as a piece of animation – there is no text whatsoever, each frame is the same (square) shape and there is a natural flow through the images – so I downloaded a cheap flash animation slide show application and made it into a picture show. What you don’t see on the animation is the attractiveness of the page layouts – the compositional flow from one panel to the next – but you do get a different viewing experience.
I met Veronique last year at the Anglouême Festival where I was signing the French edition of Arkwright. She’s a big fan of the French edition of Bad Rat and approached me at the publisher’s booth. She’s some sort of concept artist and I gather that Veronique Tanaka is a nom de plume for the body of comic and graphics work she wants to develop. Though she’s grown up reading manga and French comics, she knows nothing about the comic industry and asked me if I’d try and find her a publisher for Metronome, to act as her agent on the book. She’s really very shy and is very reticent about selling herself. I’ve found her a publisher in the form of NBM, who are going to publish the book early next year. I don’t know what she’s up to at the moment as she’s terrible at answering email. Apparently she was also at Anglouême this year but I didn’t bump into her.
Now, I may not be embarrassed about the term “comics” but… outside of work, it’s still a nightmare having to explain yourself.
Eddie Campbell (who, on reflection, came out with a “Tristram Shandy” of his own with FATE OF THE ARTIST last year, messing about with all sorts of narrative so-called “rules”) phoned from Australia when Hayley was drinking me dry, and told me that he’d been walking his dog on the fields that morning, and got talking to a woman who asked him what he did for a living. For once he made the mistake of actually telling The Truth. And I can empathise because, as we agreed, if you do tell the truth, doesn’t it always involves half an hour of tortuous explanation and qualification that still doesn’t convince strangers you’re doing anything for adults? I think readers of comics probably get the same reaction.
I suggested Eddie try what I do at weddings and funerals, when you’re asked every five seconds by people you barely know: I give up, and resort to telling people I’m a rent boy.
People immediately understand what that means, I get a lot more respect, and sometimes I even earn some money.
What’s your experience?
I usually say I’m an illustrator and leave it at that. They mostly don’t understand what being an illustrator involves or what kind of illustration I do but they’ve heard the term and think they’ll sound ignorant if they ask me what it means so change the subject. If they are genuinely interested I will eventually tell them I write and draw comics. The majority then volunteer either The Beano or Viz as an example.
It’s the same for us all.
Okay, you know, you didn’t have to do any of this, Bryan, and I truly appreciate it. That and the link that I know you’ll provide on your own site to Page 45′s [website] when this interview is up and running. ;)
My pleasure, Stephen.
Thank you. I, for one, have had an absolute blast, and if anyone out there wants to pick you up on any of this, well, they can turn up at the pub after your signing at Page 45 on 8th April, can’t they?
That’s absolutely right. One drink and I’m anybody’s.