Skipping (Brü)lightly along with Hannah Berry
Long before graphic novels became popular and fashionable with mainstream bookstores, the media and publishers, Britain’s Jonathan Cape had already long established a fine reputation for bringing the medium to the public, a tradition they’ve continued in recent years I’m glad to say, publishing fascinating and diverse new works by established British creators like Bryan Talbot and Posy Simmonds or UK editions of overseas artists like Joe Matt with a great The Poor Bastard Collection. They’ve also taken on new talent and its one of those new creators, Hannah Berry, and her debut graphic novel, the Noir-esque detective tale, the beautifully painted Britten & Brülightly who are our subject today.
FPI: Hi, Hannah and thank you for taking some time to talk to us. First of all congratulations on your debut graphic novel, Britten & Brülightly, which I absolutely loved. I suppose first of all we should really have you introduce yourself to our readers – I’ve had a look online and the very brief bio on the Jonathan Cape site doesn’t tell me much more than the fact you live in Brighton and are a graduate of Brighton University’s illustration course. So, apart from creating art and walking the promenade of Brighton watching retired ladies knitting balaclavas for the boys at the front, could you tell us a little more about yourself and what you get up to on the sunny south coast?
HB: Well you know, I like to keep an aura of mystery! People won’t know how ordinary I am, then. When I’m not graphic novelling and promenading with the grannies, I drink a lot of tea and I watch a lot of films. A lot of films. And when I’m not doing any of those, I hold down a day job somewhere deep within the criminal justice system. Not in the police, might I add. It was quite a coincidence, really, that after writing a murder mystery for some months (I hate the name ‘murder mystery’: it conjures up something nice and neat to be read over a cream tea), I was sent by a temping agency to this particular field. I mean it’s not very rock and roll, but it pays the bills. You can’t ask for more than that from a day job.
FPI: I know that this is your first full-length graphic novel, but from the care and attention you’ve lavished on creating it would I be right in assuming that you already had an interest in the comics medium? Have you created any shorter comics work before embarking on Britten & Brülightly? What sort of comics and artists – or other mediums – influenced you?
HB: I’ve always had an interest in comics – I grew up reading Calvin & Hobbes and Asterix and Fungus the Bogeyman and I think I really latched on to those during those formative years. Eventually I progressed on to the clever graphic novels by Chris Ware and Alan Moore and all those types whose books work so bloody well they bring a tear to my eye.
In between Fungus and Rorschach, though, there was a bit of a wilderness. I spent a long, long time under the delusion that was oh so easy to reach (and still is, if you reach your opinions lazily) that there were no graphic novels worth reading. To my blinkered eyes, the comic world was a big blimp of testosterone – all big muscles, boobies and kapow. Obviously there’s a place for big muscles, boobies and kapow, but it’s not on my bookshelf.
The spark wasn’t re-ignited until I wandered into the bandes dessinées section of a French bookshop and discovered, to my delight, the ‘ninth art’. For the first time I found graphic novels that were seen as a respectable art form and aimed at adults. They often painstakingly drawn and painted from start to finish, and as far as I could tell they didn’t have to resort to sweaty sensationalism or exploitation to be noticed. It was quite an eye-opener.
Back in the UK, I amassed a stack of books by French authors (Nicolas De Crecy being a particular favourite – I’m a big fan of Belleville Rendez-Vous), but for years I owned almost nothing in English. They were fantastic books, but I had no idea what was going on in them. My French isn’t even up to GCSE standard. The pictures were nice, though. I think perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel it was such a big leap to choose an art-heavy route, because I knew that just across the channel people were doing it all the time with such brilliant results. Unfortunately that was the same reason all but one of my early attempts at comics failed: because they were so bloody time-consuming (though I often wish I’d carried on with that comic book musical I started.)
(panels from Maureen’s Odyssey by Hannah Berry)
The only comic I took to completion before B&B was around a poem I wrote about a hideous troll-woman whose office I temped in once. ‘Maureen’s Odyssey’ was also part of my first and last attempt at self-publishing – it was a bit of a dismal attempt and a bitter pill to swallow. A couple of friends and I hired out a table at the London Artists Book Fair during those tender months after graduation, and then sat down to spend the weekend watching people filing past and ignoring us. Kudos to those brave souls who do manage to self-publish without wimping out in a hiss of self-loathing!
FPI: Amen to that, I’m always impressed with the number of small press creators right here in the UK putting out all sorts of comics work. And you’re experience of the ‘graphic novel desert’ is one I think many readers have encountered – I know I certainly went through a spell years back where there wasn’t as much grabbing my attention. These days I have the opposite problem, too many good comics and not enough time! Recently one of the ones that I’m glad I did pick out of my to-read pile was yours – could you tell our readers a little about the story and world readers will experience in Britten & Brülightly?
HB: B&B is set in England around the time when the Second World War should be happening, but isn’t. I like the tone of American noir of the same era, but wanted it to be set here to change the mood from an air of hard-bitten disillusionment to our native air of dour foreboding. The problem was that any troubles faced by the characters would have paled into insignificance in the cold light of war, so I just… pretended it wasn’t going on. Creative licence, if you will.
(our dispirited detective in Hannah Berry’s Britten & Brülightly, published by Cape)
The story itself follows a murder investigation that may not be a murder investigation, by an investigator that doesn’t want to be there, and with characters that are morally grey. I don’t believe in absolutes! I like to read (and watch) stories that can subtly manipulate the audience’s perception throughout without treating us like idiots. If you write the kind of story you want to read, then you know you’ve satisfied at least one reader.
And much though I love this kind of hardboiled genre, I knew it was a well-trodden path, and that either side of the path were well-trodden spoofs, and doing something different would be a challenge. I found a kind of a niche in the portrayal of the main-character (and subsequently the other main character). Often in noir the hero is hard-bitten but manages to wear it on his shoulders like a lead mantle. I quite like the idea of having a character that was eventually broken down, if not unhinged, by events. Hopefully it’s given him a more fallible, human face.
FPI: I think one of the first things which struck me when Cape were kind enough to send me a copy was the quite gorgeous artwork. You use a fairly muted range of tones, almost like a cinematographer applying different lights and filters and the artwork looks to me as if it is painted, is that right? I’m thinking from the look of it that this would be a fairly slow and time-consuming – although ultimately rewarding – method to use. Why did you decide to go down that route for your first book and just how long did it take you? And I assume you had to fit it in around real-world jobs to pay the bills while you completed it?
HB: Why yes, it is all hand-painted! And the hand painting of it took just over two and a half years to complete. I wanted the artwork to be as complex as the story was, and to leave little visual clues in the images that people would only pick up on in a second reading. That’s an advantage of working with comics: the format, more than other literature and definitely more than films, makes it possible to skip back and re-check a detail in a new light. However, hiding details in the images meant that the illustrations had to be fleshed out around them, and so the ante was upped accordingly.
I also really wanted to go all out with the artwork just to prove to myself that I could do it. The problem I had a with a lot of comics and graphic novels is that, past the magnificently drawn and rendered front cover, the artwork often reverts to something more functional. That feels like cheating, to me. I didn’t want my book to disappoint.
(Britten with two iconic images of Britain: the old red phone box and pouring rain)
The muted colours came about partly by necessity, partly by default. I’ve never been one for bright colours. I must have fifteen different coloured bottles of ink here on my desk, but I usually only use two. Keeping a limited palette puts a lot more reliance on tone than colour, and if you get it right it looks great. Perfect for noir.
FPI: In a good detective story, especially a Noir, the partner can be an important role, usually foil to the main character and although friends they are usually very different in temperament. Here you have chosen Brülightly as his partner – a slightly lecherous teabag (“I’m a teabag with needs, Fern”) who spends much of his time in Britten’s waistcoat pocket! Where did that idea come from? Was it a deliberate attempt to combine a bit of humour to contrast the darkness in Britten’s life with a physical illustration of the alienated state of his mind? Or did the idea of a talking teabag just jump into your head one day after watching the Tetley Tea men and you thought, dammit, I want to have a talking teabag in one of my stories?
HB: Actually Stewart came first – some years before when I was back at art college in Hampshire. I had a frankly crap time there, as did a friend of mine, and we used to spend more time drinking tea than in the studio working. More to amuse her than for any artistic reason, the saviour teabag popped up as a character in a comic that I did. Stewart Brülightly was one half of a detective duo, whose partner was killed. (There was a suggested relationship between the two detectives, but that was thankfully never explored.) Years later when I started working on this book at Brighton Uni, I brought back Stewart and I created Fern, initially as a character that needed saving. The story grew around that – a story in its own right, but ultimately something to batter the characters around with. I think you have to treat the characters mean when you’re writing, or else they’ll never come into their own.
FPI: For the artistically inclined could you tell us what methods and materials you used?
HB: Acrylic inks, directly onto the original drawing, drawn by a Staedtler pigment liner (do you think they’ll give me free pens for mentioning them?) and a 2B pencil. Followed by a little touch of Photoshop to clean up any errors I might have made.
FPI: Hey, Mr Staedtler, are you listening?!? Heheh. I take it some of the classic Noir films were a big influence on your design and layout? There are some beautiful scenes from varying perspectives – looking from the side of the road or directly downwards through the rain which seem very cinematic to me, with something of those wonderfully stylised movies of the 40s about them. And some scenes, such as the lovely page where Britten meets his client in the café (see below), look like one large splash page but broken up by the intervention of frames giving (to me at least) the impression of a slow panning shot from a movie which I thought was a lovely touch of motion to a fairly static scene of two people facing one another across a table.
HB: I reckon the cinematic approach was a happy by-product of both my illustration training and my being a film geek! Illustration is about making a point visually, and every facet of the illustration should contribute to that – its composition, its tone, everything has to convey what it’s supposed to convey. And, being a film geek, illustrational challenges were tackled with cinematic elements, often with a nod to directors I really rate (I’m thinking in particular of ‘neo-noir’ types like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan and the Coen brothers, and ‘old-school noir’ Carol Reed). It’s probably not ideal – I know I’m not using comics to their full potential while I’m echoing film, but it’s a good place to start.
A recurring problem while working on the book was finding ways of illustrating dialogue that are animating but unobtrusive. I love writing dialogue, and I tend to write staccato conversations that cross backwards and forwards a lot, which for the sake of the format I have to edit down pretty heavily. To save the scene from getting bogged down in words I had to introduce some level of movement, and as movement is obviously something that’s lacking from the comic world, I needed to compensate in other ways. A lot of the films of Jeunet and Caro (especially Delicatessen) use composition and angle to make static shots appear quite dynamic, and theirs sprang to mind as a good example to follow.
As for breaking up a panel with nothing but time alone, that was a way of keeping the dialogue in line chronologically and stopping it becoming too confusing. I thought I was being rather cutting edge there, but I found that the great Chris Ware is already one step ahead! And he has done it much better, the swine.
FPI: The Ware is omnipresent and omniscient and I suspect future generations will construct a spiritual belief system around him. Noir also seems very present in the complex web of deceit and betrayals which surface as Britten begins, reluctantly at first, to dig into the case, while Charlotte Maughton seems like the perfect 40s femme fatale when she first arrives, well-dressed, cigarette, determined air – I half expected her to ask Britten if he knew how to whistle. Did you have some of the strong female actresses like Lauren Bacall from that era in mind when you developed her?
HB: Not exactly: I wanted to have a defiant female character who was presenting her grief in bursts of anger, and the more I wrote it the more of a femme fatale she became, in character if not in deed. She was too distracted to finish a cigarette, let alone to bring about someone’s demise or become an out-and-out temptress. Her feminine wiles wouldn’t have worked in the story, anyway – they would have undermined Britten’s ultimate intentions for helping her…
FPI: Can I ask about Britten’s face for a moment? He has a very distinctive face, cartoonish without being too cartoony, if you know what I mean. And in some lights his pale, immobile face and the dark rings around his eyes put me in mind of pictures I’ve seen of the ceramic masks artists made for soldiers of the Great War who had been terribly disfigured to wear over their own face like a second skin. What inspired making his face so different from the other characters and why that particular look?
HB: To make the story as convoluted and with as many characters as possible, I knew that if it was to work well then confusing any of the people would have been bad, but to mistake the main character would have been catastrophic. Britten had to be instantly recognisable, whether he was at a distance or in the dark or cropped so that he was only partially visible – his face had to be more familiar than the other characters; to be distinctive without being a caricature. When I was first playing around with his looks, I decided to make him Ecuadorian as a little nod to my roots (to my mother’s roots, actually: I was born in Hampshire). There’s not enough mention of Ecuador in British culture. In trying to make him look Ecuadorian, I realised that I was basing him more and more on my grandfather. He died when I was ten so I only half remember him, but I do remember this kind of dignified sadness that he had and this air of mystery about where he had come from, and that’s what made it to the book. He also made pig-noises to make me laugh, but that didn’t seem right for the story, somehow.
Throughout the book his face is, apart from one panel of anger, entirely devoid of expression. Still waters and all that; but I think it also helps the reader to identify with a character if their face is an immobile blank canvas. I needed readers to empathise with him to some extent.
FPI: Was there also a slight element of homage in his appearance? I’m thinking particularly here of Agatha Christie’s great detective Poirot who is often mistaken for a Frenchmen and has to point out that no, he is actually Belgian, while Britten is told several times he ‘looks French’ but is actually from Ecuador.
HB: In all honesty, none whatsoever! The reason that people keep mistaking Britten’s nationality, aside from adding to a sense of isolation, was that during the early stages of working on the story my housemate at the time peered at my open sketchbook and said “is he supposed to be French?”
FPI: Haha, there you go, classic case of a book being interpreted differently depending on which other books and movies the reader has explored; we all see something slightly different in a book – which makes it all the more interesting, of course!
Turning to getting published for a moment, it isn’t often we see someone getting a full length graphic novel – especially one so beautifully painted and designed – bought by a major publisher on their first outing, let alone a publisher the size of Cape which is part of one of the world’s largest book publishers. How did you find yourself with them? Did you approach them, were they one of many you approached as you worked on the book or did they hear about it and approach you?
HB: The first few pages of B & B were part of my degree show at Brighton, and we invited a lot of professional types to our private view. And with that self-important air that’s an integral part of being at art school, I was surprised to find that not one person ‘discovered’ me or anyone else in my class. After six months of sulking over that and realising that I wasn’t cut out to be a freelance illustrator, I made it my new years resolution to see if any publishers were taking submissions for graphic novels and to see if they were interested in mine. I only wrote to two: Cape and Vertigo. Vertigo weren’t taking submissions for new graphic novels, but Cape were and that was that. Secretly I’m a bit ashamed at how easy it was, I don’t feel like I’ve done my time treading the streets with my portfolio! I think I was just at the right place at the right time.
FPI: How did you find working with Cape? Although they may not put out as many graphic novels as a comics publisher like DC I’ve always thought what they do put out is always top flight material – Joe Matt, Bryan Talbot, Posey Simmonds, Simone Lia et al – all very different from one another in style and content but all sharing a level of quality and usually with a fair bit of crossover appeal which makes them attractive to both comics readers and the more traditional bookstore browser. Its encouraging to see them publishing work from new creators like yourself.
HB: It certainly is, not least for other new creators who may be looking for a way in! It was heartening to be added to a list of such prestigious authors, but my god do I have some big shoes to fill – I feel as though I really have to prove myself.
To begin with I found the whole process quite alarming – I’ve never had anything published before, obviously, and I didn’t realise just how much of a long rein you’re given with the first draft. I used to send the pages in batches and wait for interim criticism which never came. I didn’t know it then, but all suggested redrafts would come at the end once I’d finished the artwork (fortunately there weren’t that many). I used to sit at my desk and fret for hours that I was being given too much freedom: they didn’t know me from Adam and they didn’t know that I wouldn’t just turn in any old shite. It was a bit like the feeling of vertigo you get at the edge of a cliff, when you worry that nothing is stopping you from taking a step forwards. But apparently that’s the way it works in publishing: there’s a lot of trust that you won’t disappoint. And presumably if trust fails then there’s a lot of lawyers.
FPI: We’ve been seeing – to our delight – the medium being taken much more seriously by the mainstream press, who seem to have woken up to something we’ve been saying all along, that the comics medium is extremely diverse and encompasses far more than capes and tights and enchanted pandas with sexual hang-ups. Did this increasing acceptance encourage you to spend a lot of time developing Britten & Brülightly or was it just good fortune that as you were completing it you found that the world was developing more of an interest in, and taste for, good graphic tales?
HB: I really had no idea this was happening until my book came out and everyone told me what good timing it was! I was just happy that I’d found a way that I could write and draw and make a living (perhaps), and not only that but it was suddenly a very acceptable thing to do. Although the majority of people still assume that the ‘graphic’ of graphic novels refers to something sexual. It’s interesting to see just who is relieved and who is disappointed when I explain it to them.
Hopefully one day it will be perfectly normal to look around on the train and see people reading graphic novels, and for it to be a valid art form. I’ve heard that there’s an undergraduate course in graphic novelry that’s just started, and not before time. Even as little as four years ago when I graduated, comics were still seen as a bit of an unpleasant blot on the artistic horizon. I hope that changes. They’re starting to gain a foothold in the literary world, and it’d be nice to be able to see them receive some kind of honest recognition in the arts world, too.
FPI: A question we always ask our guests – what books and/or comics are you enjoying at the moment? Anyone whose work you would especially recommend?
HB: At the moment I’m impatiently awaiting the translation of the third Blacksad book – I discovered Blacksad about a year into working on my book, and had I not been contractually bound by Cape I might have thrown in the towel! The artwork is great, and they conjure up the era so well. I’m also looking forward to Raymond Brigg’s new book, which I hear is about death. But those are books I’m not enjoying yet.
One of the best books I’ve read recently was the ridiculously simple but brilliant ‘Albert and the Others’ by Guy Delisle. There’s no text in it and the images are unfussy and monochromatic, but it just works. The timing is impeccable and each short story inside is a little gem. I found myself chuckling aloud when I read it.
FPI: Obviously you will be busy promoting Britten & Brülightly just now, but may I ask what’s next in the works for you? I’m hoping very much that you will be returning to the graphic novel medium, whether it is a second Britten & Brülightly or something totally different.
HB: Graphic novels all the way! B&B was quite steep learning curve, but I still don’t feel like I fully understand what comics are capable of yet. I have an idea in the pipeline for the next one (sadly no more Britten or Brülightly, at least for the present), and I have plans for a different genre altogether. I’ve always had a love of horror, and I think a ghost story as a graphic novel could work well. I’ll see how it goes.
FPI: Hannah, thank you very much for chatting with us and I’m looking forward to seeing what you work on next. Britten & Brülightly has just been published in the UK by Jonathan Cape and can be found on our website right now, while Hannah has been busy appearing at various literary festivals, with more to follow in the near future, including an appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this August.
HB: Please buy it, I need to give up my day job!