“Bodies for gold!” – we talk bodysnatching to Martin Conaghan & Will Pickering

Published On November 13, 2009 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Interviews

FPI:  Today I’m joined by Martin Conaghan and Will Pickering, the team behind Insomnia’s recently published graphic novel Burke and Hare, which draws upon one of history’s most famous cases of the infamous ‘Resurrection Men’ (or bodysnatchers) in Enlightenment era Edinburgh. Hi, guys and thanks for joining us – could you begin by introducing yourselves to us and tell our readers a little about your comics history, what works got you interested in the medium and how you got into working in comics?

Martin: I work as a broadcast journalist for the BBC in Scotland, working mainly in Sport – writing news, match reports and such like, in addition to broadcasting on radio. I’ve also freelanced as a writer, blogger and journalist for dozens of other companies, such as AOL. Prior to that, I worked as a psychiatric nurse for ten years in Glasgow. I’ve been interested in comics since I was a kid, but never really got into mainstream comics until my teen years, when I started picking up titles like 2000AD, Crisis, Hellblazer, Animal Man and Doom Patrol. The whole revolution that Grant Morrison and Mark Millar ushered in, as Scottish creators, prompted me to try and pursue a career as a comics writer, but I don’t think I was ready for it ten to fifteen years ago. I was too inexperienced, and ended up side-stepping into mainstream journalism to pick up the fundamental skills of writing.

After a ten year absence from comics, I felt confident enough to return and give it another go. I hadn’t picked up a comic in all that time (apart from reading some trade paperbacks my work colleagues were reading). However, once again, Morrison got me hooked – with All Star Superman, We3 and Batman & Robin. I’m also a big fan of The Walking Dead, anything by Mark Millar and Brian K Vaughn, and I still keep an eye out for anything Pete Milligan does. Of course, there’s also Alan Moore – but, he’s a given.

Burke Hare Martin Conaghan Will Pickering Rian Hughes Insomnia

Will: I’ve just always been comics daft, and I keep coming back to them. They were everywhere when I was little – newsagents, sweet shops, barbers’ and doctors’ waiting rooms – and the sheer variety was incredible. I grew up on this glorious mishmash of Tintin, Asterix, the Trigan Empire, the Broons, Marvel and DC, Alan Class Ditko and Wally Wood reprints, the Beano, the Hotspur, the Warlord, 2000AD, Warrior, Luther Arkwright, Grendel, Whisper, Cerebus, Lone Wolf and Cub…

I always knew that making these things was what I wanted to do, but by the time I was ready to turn pro it was the height of the 90s speculator boom, and the whole market had become really polarised – you had a dozen different superhero crossover universes competing for attention at the top end, and then at the bottom there were all these lovely, passionate small press people who seemed quite happy to be losing money hand over fist, and I found it hard to carve out a niche in  the middle. I was too indie to break into the mainstream and too mainstream to be a credible indie – I did some self-publishing, and picked up the odd paying gig here and there, but nothing led directly to anything else and I just couldn’t sustain myself on fresh air and enthusiasm long enough to build a reputation, so I had to go off and do other things to survive. Then ten years later the recession came along and the starveling artist routine became viable again by default, so here I am.

FPI: Martin I don’t think you’re the first person to have been lured back to comics by the quality of material from the likes of Grant and Mark and I can certainly empathise with your early comics reading, Will, I suspect that mixture of imports and the then huge homegrown range of comics was a vital part of childhood reading for many of us of a certain age.

Moving on to your current book – I think Burke and Hare make great subject material for storytelling and it doesn’t surprise me that they have been re-imagined in various mediums or been used as a springboard for other tales over the last century and a half (not least by the great Robert Louis Stevenson) and yet, like Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, it’s a story lots of people assume they actually know, but most of them actually don’t know the real history (many still think they actually dug up the bodies like the Resurrection Men). What was it that drew you to them and what was it you thought you could do in a new comics interpretation that would make it different from previous works inspired by their grisly work?

Martin: Around 1994, I was writing some short stories for Caliber Comics’ ‘Negative Burn’ anthology, and I produced an issue of their popular ‘Raven Chronicles’ title, which was their take on The X-Files. The publisher, Gary Reed, approached me about writing something for their ‘Gothic’ line of horror graphic novels – which was their take on out-of-copyright classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein – and they asked if I wanted to do an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Body-Snatcher’. Being one of only a few Scottish creators on their books, I jumped at the chance – but when I started the research, the true story of Burke and Hare emerged. I quickly discovered that Stevenson had based his story on the real exploits of the Irish serial-killers William Burke and William Hare, and then transformed it into a story about ghoulish grave-robbers with a supernatural twist.

Of course, Stevenson’s take on the tale is the one everyone knows today – the story of two “Scottish grave-robbers”. The truth is much stranger – Burke and Hare were Irishmen, and they never set foot in an Edinburgh graveyard with the intention of stealing a corpse; they murdered all of their victims and disposed of the bodies to medical science. When I was conducting my research on the story, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s ‘From Hell’ was making quite a scene – being so different from anything that had ever been produced before – with such an accurate historical take on events, backed up by extensive research notes and detailed artwork. So, I was heavily influenced by ‘From Hell’ in my approach to Burke & Hare, and I drafted it as a 48-page graphic novel, comprising 38 pages of art and 10 pages of appendix notes. Stuart Beel was brought on board to illustrate, but had to move on to other work, and another artist – Nulsh – came and went before Caliber ceased publishing, and the script fell into limbo, along with my stalled comics  career. I never gave it another thought until I spotted Insomnia Publications seeking new material. And, being an Edinburgh-based publisher, Burke & Hare seemed perfect for them. They jumped at it, and I tracked down Will Pickering (who had illustrated my issue of ‘Raven Chronicles’) and we were off and running.

Will: I got this cryptic comment on my blog saying “email Martin C”, and the whole thing developed from there. I was actually a bit hesitant at first, because we hadn’t been in touch for years and I’d only just decided a week earlier to start taking comics seriously again – I had unused ideas and incomplete projects of my own I wanted to be getting on with, and I wasn’t sure I was up to spending a couple of months on somebody else’s vanity project. But I figured I could spare a few days for an old mate, so I said I’d hack out a couple of sample pages to illustrate a pitch document, just for a bit of visual oomph – and a few weeks later we had a deal. It was a real jump in at the deep end, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it any other way, and the more I read up on the background the more into it I got.

Martin Conaghan and Will Pickering Burke and Hare

(Martin and Will at the Insomnia stand at the recent BICS con, pic borrowed from Insomnia’s Red Eye blog)

FPI: It’s a fascinating period of history – it’s essentially one of the most important stages of the birth of modern medicine and the life sciences that we take for granted to keep us healthy today, and yet much of the pioneering work by leading anatomists was carried out in less than legal – or even ethical – ways. Its part of an era of unprecedented growth in the arts, sciences and humanities, not least in Scotland and Edinburgh, the famous ‘men of genius’ essentially laying down many of the foundations of the modern world, but just like the criminal underworld this glittering class of intelligentsia had bodies in the foundations. How did you approach the historical aspects of the period? Martin, I believe you did a lot of research, including visiting the anatomy school’s museum where Burke’s skeleton still hangs? And how did Will find illustrating the Edinburgh of the period?

Martin: I sought out almost every book, article, documentary, movie, song and poem I could find on the subject – chief among which were Owen Dudley Edwards’s ‘Burke & Hare’ and Hugh Douglas’s ‘Burke & Hare: The True Story’ – both of which reconstructed the case from historical manuscripts, confessions, court transcripts and letters and are widely believed to be among the most definitive books on the subject. We stomped the streets of Edinburgh, took photos, compared the various versions of the story and reached our own conclusions about the true facts of the case. We even visited the private Anatomy Museum at Edinburgh University to see William Burke’s skeleton, where it remains on display to this day. After he was found guilty of murdering one of the final victims, Burke was hanged for his crimes and his body was bequeathed to Edinburgh University, where it was publicly dissected and his bones put on permanent display in remembrance of his crimes.

William Hare was released as agreed in law for his part in acting as chief witness against his accomplice at the trial. In my script, I pretty much left a lot of the detail to Will (often, I just said “we need a reference for this character” or “we’ll need to find a picture of this building” and Will went and tracked them down). It was fascinating to delve so far into Scotland and Edinburgh’s history, because the crimes were committed at the height of the Enlightenment, when medicine was a growing form of education, and something of a gold rush sprung up around the medical establishments as they sought to procure medical cadavers, which were all too readily provided by grave-robbers – or ‘resurrectionists’. So it’s not too difficult to see how Burke and Hare’s tale became intertwined with the goings-on around the UK at the time.

Will: I realised early on that we had a real opportunity to do something special with this: not just to retell the story and discount some of the myths, but to make the artwork as much a work of scholarship as the writing. We’ve all seen historical dramas where Prague stands in for Regency London or some National Trust property in Hampshire pretends to be Versailles, and it would have been easy enough to set Burke and Hare in a sort of generic pseudo-Edinburgh, just throwing in enough looming tenements, shadowy closes and background shots of the Castle to give it flavour – but I set myself the challenge, instead, of getting every single physical detail as historically accurate as I could: tracking down the original locations, establishing the spatial relationships between them, the routes people would have taken from place to place and what buildings were actually there at the time.

And I did the same thing with the cast, hunting obsessively for every  portrait, sketch or caricature I could find of anyone who appears in even one panel, from Lord Boyle and Sir Walter Scott all the way down the social scale to Daft Jamie and the unfortunate Mrs Docherty. Obviously, it was just before the invention of photography and a lot of the neighbours, trial witnesses and so on never had their likenesses recorded anywhere, but as far as possible I’ve based everybody on contemporary images, and I’m pretty impressed by how many of them I managed to get. I was extremely fortunate to be working on this now rather than back in the mid-90s: the sheer amount of visual reference I ploughed through to do it this way would have been prohibitive without the Internet. I’d probably have had to move to Edinburgh for the duration, and even then it might have taken years to track down everything I needed.

As it was, I got away with doing a couple of scouting trips to familiarise myself with the lie of the land and visit  museums and such, but the vast majority of the map regression and image searches I was able to do at home. I spent just over six months working flat out once I got the final script in, and less than half of that was actual drawing time. My motto all the way through was Thomas Carlyle’s advice to David Laing about the National Portrait Gallery: “the thing can by no means be done by Yankee-Barnum methods; nor should it, if it could” – in other words, unless you’re going to get it right, why bother?

FPI: I think readers will appreciate the historical detail and the effort which goes into them – it would be too easy to simply rehash their story as a quick exploitation piece of throwaway tosh, so as someone who loves both comics and history I have to say I’m glad you opted for the slower but more thorough approach.

Star-anatomist Knox and some of his fellows may not have been the most ethical of fellows but there is little doubting the huge advancements they made to the science of medicine; I’m curious as to how you approached the moral aspect of the tale. There is murder, which is of course a vile crime to any civilised person and even the Resurrection Men who dug up fresh corpses from the cemeteries rather than murdering victims for the anatomy trade are viewed with loathing by most, but the number of lives saved through the medical progress this gruesome trade served is incalculable. How did you approach this moral quagmire in the book?

Martin: There’s no question the whole sorry mess changed medicine as the world knows it. While Burke and Hare’s antics didn’t directly bring about the change in the laws pertaining to the donation of corpses to medical science, it was referenced in the Anatomy Act of 1832 (which allowed the [legal] donation of bodies) and the whole country was aware of their deeds. With regards to Knox, I decided not to focus on the morality of his actions, as it seems fairly obvious in the story that he was receiving a steady flow of fresh bodies from Burke and Hare and would have undoubtedly been aware that two men on their own would have been extremely unlikely to be stumbling on bodies by accident, no matter how they explained it away. The duo disposed of 17 bodies in total – 16 of whom were smothered to death – over roughly nine months. It worked out at a body roughly every 14 days, which would have surely raised some suspicion. However, no evidence exists to prove that  Knox was in any way party to Burke and Hare’s reign of terror, and I wanted to make sure the story was presented in a straightforward fashion – so any involvement on his part it entirely implied.

Conaghan Pickering Burke and Hare

(beware of strangers offering hospitality… Burke and Hare lure an unsuspecting victim back to their dwelling)

Will: The moral ins and outs of it all weren’t something I gave a lot of thought to, except insofar as the characters’ emotional states would be affected, which would affect how I drew them. There is a kind of queasy ambiguity in the central relationship between Burke, Hare and Knox, but it’s the same feeling you get when you think carefully about where your meat, your coffee, your cotton, your petrol comes from. Civilisation and progress are wonderful things, but who pays for them and do we really want to know how much? What’s the value of a human life anyway? It’s probably the central theme of the book, but for me it was more important to focus on what the characters were doing, saying and feeling, rather than passing judgement. That’s up to the reader.

FPI: Point taken, unless its exposed and waved in our faces most folks don’t really think did my new cotton shirt get made properly or by the sweated labour of third world orphans, or did this oil come from a company who then dumped the toxic leftovers in Africa? Knox must have been suspicious, but since it suited his agenda perhaps he decided unless clear evidence of wrong doing was right in front of his eyes he’d just go along as normal.

It’s an interesting mix of characters though, from the low to high society figures, folks in slum dwellings and anatomists who were major society figures as well as academics; what was your take on the main characters? I believe Knox himself was a real mixture of the brilliant but also terribly arrogant and determined to make a famous name for himself, while Hare had struggled up from dreadful poverty in Ireland.

Martin: Originally, I wanted Burke to be a fairly down-to-earth sort of character. Certainly, that’s how he seems to present in the various sources, and I wanted Hare to come across as the evil one. When you see the life cast of Hare’s face, he looks like The Joker – and after seeing The Dark Knight, I was tempted to make him seem like a force of nature – blitzing his way through Edinburgh and murdering with impunity. From the historical evidence we could find, there was no origin story for Hare, and his whereabouts after he was released is also unknown – so it seemed to fit. However, it would have been a bit cliché-ridden to make him a caricature of some other fictional character, so we just portrayed both of them as realistically as the historical evidence would allow us.

Which ever way you look at it – and irrespective of their personality traits – Burke and Hare were cold-blooded killers; untrustworthy fiends who extinguished the lives of 16 innocent people. When we approached the murders, we wanted to make them almost seem mundane and ordinary. Burke and Hare were two poor immigrants trying to make a living – they just happened to stumble upon murder as an acceptable way to do it. As for Knox, the historical evidence depicts him as a brilliant, engaging character – albeit an arrogant one, and Will definitely captured that side of him. He’s one of the most captivating characters in the book, with his dead eye socket, expensive clothing and swept back hair.

Will: I think Burke comes over as the most rounded character, but that might just be because we see more of him. The narrative follows his confession, so inevitably most of it is from his point of view, and we did have discussions about how reliable a narrator we wanted him to be – he seems quite determined at certain points to confine all blame to himself and Hare rather than the wives or Dr Knox or anyone else who might have had some knowledge of what they were up to, and it’s an interesting question whether that’s motivated by guilt, compassion, loyalty or a kind of sick vanity – but undercutting his version of events would have been entirely speculative, and the story’s gruesome enough as it is.

He’s kind of a tragic figure, in a way – a guy stumbling towards middle age, acutely aware of his limitations, with a failed marriage and a string of failed careers behind him, taking refuge in the bottle and then suddenly, unexpectedly, being drawn into this bizarre Gothic conspiracy that provides him with a comfortable living for probably the first time in his life – and all he has to do is bump off a few people nobody’s going to miss. I’m not suggesting he was a patsy or that he didn’t know what he was doing, but he stepped over the threshold into a world where the unthinkable was acceptable – Hare’s world – and when it all unravelled he was left to carry the can for all of them.

Hare’s like a ghost – we know almost nothing about him. How did he come to be running a guesthouse with another man’s widow in the first place? Was Old Donald’s death really accidental, or had the whole scheme been going on for a while before Burke got involved? We’ll just never know: Hare walks into history in 1827, murders some people and walks straight back out again eighteen months later, free as a bird. He and Knox, although their social positions were very different, both have this hyper-real, theatrical quality, as if they were fictional characters all along and the world was just there for them to perform in. Such people are always dangerous.

FPI: Even today when the autumn mists settle around Edinburgh’s Old Town you could be forgiven for half expecting to see Burke and Hare emerge from the fog carrying another body, its still a great setting for macabre, Gothic tales, but history aside do you think the tale still has relevance to the modern audience, especially in a world where we still have many concerns over the ethics of some medical procedures, from tales of buying human organs from third world donors to new genetic research? Do you think that like Frankenstein and his monster a shadow of Burke and Hare will always lurk in our collective unconscious?

Martin: Edinburgh is one of the greatest cities in the world. It’s a mixture of the old and new; labyrinthine stairways and alleys, bridges and closes – and the beautiful buildings of the New Town imposing themselves on the dirty, dank old town. I think the tale of Burke and Hare captivates any visitor to the city because the streets retain much of the look and feel they would have held in the 1820s. It remains relevant to a modern audience because it’s such a potent mixture of fact and fiction – people still worry about their organs being harvested or even having to receive anything from a donor – especially where blood is concerned.

Burke and Hare also crossed into the realm of pure fiction when Stevenson re-imagined them in a supernatural setting, so their place in history is assured – not just because of Stevenson, but because of the medical legacy and the sheer horror of their crimes. Burke confessed to the murders of 16 people – which outnumbers Harold Shipman, so the story is very much a fixed point in the history of Edinburgh, Scotland and the world. However, history tends to remember them as grave-robbers, so in our graphic novel, I wanted to set the record straight, and present the truth of their story in a straightforward fashion, separated from the various representations that have shrouded the story in myth.

Will: It’s funny you should mention Frankenstein, because of course it comes from the same milieu – the advance of medical science and the plundering of graveyards to ease it along. The first edition came out in 1818, ten years before the West Port murders, the second edition in 1831, two years afterwards, so they’re practically synchronous and it’s hardly surprising if people have them in the same mental box – I’m sure James Whale probably did. They’ve both passed into myth, and it’s funny how even though one’s fact and the other’s fiction, there’s so much more to both stories than the versions most people think they know.

FPI: Turning now to the book proper, Martin and Will are going to share some pages from the graphic novel and talk us through a few select scenes to give us a wee taster of what they have done with the monstrous tale of Burke and Hare (click on the images for the larger picture):

Burke Hare Martin Conaghan Will Pickering Grassmarket and Castle blog

Martin: this is one of the earliest pages Will illustrated, so it’s the one that sticks in my mind the most. Originally, he did a few mock-up pages for our pitch to Insomnia, experimenting with different styles and layouts. I think this page captures two major things in the story – it sets the scene firmly in Edinburgh, at the foot of the castle and it sets the tone of the artwork to come. Will’s art takes on an ‘engraved’ feel, giving it an aged look – and this page achieves it beautifully. I also wanted Edinburgh Castle to be almost like a character in the book (it crops up in other pages), as it has such an imposing presence in the city.

Will: The big panel is based on a contemporary view from the Foot of the Vennel, which was a popular spot for artists at the time (and I suppose probably still is) precisely because it does give you that contrast between the soaring bulk of the Castle and the mundane business of everyday commerce lower down. I’ve done a bit of a cinematic trick on the bottom tier where the saltwife becomes visible as two extras in the foreground move away from each other, and then we pan round to her face and you can see a bit of the Grassmarket behind her, with Naismith’s house and the foot of Heriot Bridge – it’s a good example of what I was saying earlier about spatial relationships, getting the geography nailed right down so it feels real.

Burke Hare Martin Conaghan Will Pickering Knox pays forbidden planet blog

Martin: This is one of the first occasions the reader meets Dr Robert Knox, a character Will loved illustrating because of his hewn features, and that dead eye socket I mentioned earlier (he lost the eye due to suffering smallpox as a child). We also see 10 Surgeon’s Square at the bottom of the page, which no longer exists in Edinburgh, but is a fine example of the research Will carried out during the course of illustrating the book, where he had to track down representations of streets, buildings, people and places to bring the story alive.

Will: Knox’s teaching rooms are gone, and Surgeon’s Square is no longer accessible directly from the street, but it’s still more or less there, tucked away behind some university buildings between South Bridge and the Flodden Wall. The old Surgeons’ Hall, seen on the left of the panel, is still standing, although it was modified almost beyond recognition in Victorian times. Knox appears briefly on page 4, but this is the first time he speaks and his character starts to emerge – that imperious disdain for the grubby reality of the trade he’s gotten involved in. He’s an intelligent man, but just how much does he really know, or guess, by this point? We’re not saying. It’s all in the facial expression.

Burke Hare Martin Conaghan Will Pickering the trial fobidden planet blog

Martin: This page is taken from a sequence in the book that was added towards the end. Insomnia asked for a slightly longer script than my original Caliber script, so I added a section in the middle incorporating elements of Burke’s trial, the aftermath of the final murder, and the final murder itself. I wanted to experiment with the narrative flow of the story by compressing three timeframes into each page of the chapter, spreading the story horizontally across the pages. Again, Will’s artwork varies slightly with each narrative strand and captures the very essence of each component, giving the reader brief insights into what happened in each scene.

Will: There’s not much to add, except to note that the advocate in panel one is Alexander Wood, one of several bit players in the story who were frustratingly difficult to reference – in his case, because it was hard to distinguish him in searches from two much more famous Edinburgh personages of the same name. But I made a last-minute dash to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery the day before it closed for refurbishment, and they came up trumps for me. There’s something like ten different lawyers and judges named in the script, and one way or another I found portraits of just about all of them – which is lucky, because you certainly can’t tell them apart by the way they dress!

Burke Hare Martin Conaghan Will Pickering Grassmarket Knox in the Meadows fp blog

Martin: This scene depicts Dr Robert Knox walking in the Edinburgh Meadows with his friend Dr Adams. It was important for us to convey the stark differences between Edinburgh’s Old Town and the New Town and other new, open, healthy spaces – and the respective inhabitants. Will intentionally depicted scenes in the Old Town as grubby, scratchy and dark, with the New Town scenes white, fresh and clean. Even the characters in the New Town scenes have clean white clothing, and the skies seem bleached white.

Will: It’s really just talking heads. I had to imagine Adams because I couldn’t find a likeness anywhere, but otherwise this was one of the most straightforward pages in the whole book.

FPI would like to thank Martin and Will for taking the time to share their thoughts with us; you can find out more via Insomnia’s Red Eye blog and Burke and Hare is available to order now. Martin has a blog here and you can follow Will here. All art (c) Monaghan/Pickering/Insomnia, cover artwork by Rian Hughes.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

7 Responses to “Bodies for gold!” – we talk bodysnatching to Martin Conaghan & Will Pickering

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  3. Shaun says:

    I have information on William Hare’s Irish background, where he was born in 1778, who his wife and son were called, where he was married