Rabbit holes, badger detectives and cherubs – part two of Bryan Talbot’s interview with Pádraig
Following yesterday’s terrific chat between Bryan Talbot and Pádraig Ó Méalóid (which can be read here) today we bring you the second half, where we mostly move on to more recent work from Bryan, such as the magnificent, years-in-the-making Alice in Sunderland, cross-gender anonymity with the ‘Veronique Tanaka’ silent comic experiment (which took me in, not that it diluted my enjoyment of the work), more humorous work with the hilarious Cherbus (with Mark Stafford) and the Naked Artist (with Hunt Emerson) and, of course, his gorgeous steampunk SF new work, Grandville, as well as the importance of the number 23; over once more to Bryan and Pádraig:
(a page from the wonderful history-biography-literary Alice in Sunderland by and (c) Bryan Talbot)
PÓM: What made you decide you wanted to do Alice in Sunderland, which is after all a fairly densely packed work, and it’s fair to say unlike anything that had gone before?
BT: I’ve never done anything like it and probably never will again, though I have used the presentation style I developed for it – me as narrator in black and white on a collaged background – a couple of times since in short strips, such as the history of British comics I did for the Guardian. I’d been wanting to do something based around Alice for about twenty years, though not an adaptation of the story. I’d been accumulating books on Carroll and so forth. The original Tenniel illustrations are something that’s fascinated me since I was a child. The second issue of Brainstorm in 1976 was partly a homage to Looking Glass.
About ten years ago we moved to Sunderland when my wife, Dr Mary M Talbot, started working for the university here and I’d not been here very long before I started to hear about Carroll’s links with the place. I discovered a book called A Town Like Alice’s by local scholar Michael Bute that documented many of these links and was astounded at how this information has been wilfully ignored by other Carrollian scholars in favour of the Oxford dreamchild myth. Members of Carroll’s family lived here and for many years. He lived here himself for about three months every year and wrote parts of the Alice books in Whitburn, on Sunderland’s northern boundary, notably Jabberwocky, the most famous nonsense poem in the English language. And that’s just scraping the surface. With his penchant for puns and word games I’ve every reason to believe that he even derived the name Wonderland from Sunderland and that the roots of the Alice books are firmly established in the North East. This, I realized, was my way to do something based on Alice at last, though if I’d realized then the sheer amount of work I’d be doing on the book and how long it would take me I’d have run like hell.
(showcasing yet another different style of art in Bryan’s interpretation of Carroll’s Jabberwocky from Alice in Sunderland)
PÓM: Can I ask you what your wife Mary has her doctorate in, by the way?
BT: Linguistics. She specializes in feminist linguistics and has written several textbooks including a standard university text, ‘Language and Gender’. A chapter deconstructing the romance genre in her book ‘Fictions at Work’ inspired me to write the four part Dreaming arc Weird Romance.
PÓM: More recently, you’ve been diversifying a bit from what you’d been doing up ’til then. There’s Cherubs!, which you’re writing, but which is being drawn by another artist, Mark Stafford; and there’s The Naked Artist, a collection of scurrilous tales from the seamy underside of the comics business, which is a prose book, rather than a comic book (although with some cracking illustrations from Hunt Emerson – Joe). Is this an indication of more to come, or were you just trying to get a few things out of your system?
BT: I think it’s simply that I like writing and drawing different types of stories. I recently realised that both The Beatles and David Bowie must have been big influences on my work, in the way that they constantly reinvented themselves from album to album. They weren’t content to produce the same sort of material for years but pushed themselves to be inventive and work in different styles. As for Cherubs!, I’ve been a fan of Mark’s work for over twenty years and I think he’s an extremely talented bloke with a great sense of visual humour. It amazes me that he isn’t a nationally famous cartoonist. I thought that he’d be ideal to illustrate the Cherubs! script and he did a fantastic job. I wanted it to be drawn in a very cool indie cartoon style and he delivered. It’s a shame that Desperado couldn’t have promoted the book more (or, indeed, at all) as no one seems to have heard of it (I thought it was one of the funniest comics I’d read in years – Joe).
It would have sold well if it only had reached an audience. I mean – gonzo cherubs on the run from the first murder in heaven! Renegade archangels! Vampires! Vampire hunters! Fairy hookers! New York! Mark’s artwork! What’s not to like? Mark’s currently drawing the second and last book. I have a two page scene very early on concerning two down and outs which is a simultaneous pastiche of the opening scene of Waiting for Godot, the first scene of Bride of Frankenstein and the first scene of Terminator! And Mark drew the two tramps as Walter Matthau and Wilfred Bramble! Brilliant!
(heaven ain’t all its cracked up to be in Cherubs, written by Bryan Talbot, art by Mark Stafford, published Desperado)
I wrote The Naked Artist in the first month after finishing Alice. After such a long slog on something as complex as that it was a real joy to just bang out something light and funny. I don’t think of it as a ‘seamy underside’ kind of book. I mean, it’s not Comics Babylon or anything. It’s just a collection of humorous anecdotes, none of them nasty or pernicious. The only person who seems to have taken offence was Dave Simm, who objected to being portrayed as a blowhard. Someone pointed that section out to him at a convention, out of context. I don’t think that he could have read the rest of the book, otherwise he would have read several times that I don’t claim that these stories are true. What I DO say is that it IS true that these stories are TOLD. That was the idea of the book: a collection of the tales that are told in comic convention pro bars late at night, the urban legends of the comic industry. Old friend Hunt Emerson produced the great illustrations. Again, it’s a pity that Moonstone is such a tiny publisher almost no one noticed the book, though I gather it was nominated for a Harvey Award. I do have the concept and many notes for a prose novel (simply because I think this story would work better in prose than in comic form) but I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to writing it. I also have a proposal for a one hour TV play that a director is currently trying to get off the ground.
PÓM: There was also The Art of Bryan Talbot, published by NBM in 2007. How did that come about?
BT: I’m actually quite well-known in Italy, as I’ve been in print there for over twenty years and have done many signings there. An Italian publisher approached me about producing an art book and I started accumulating the illos and writing and editing the book. Then they were taken over and the new publisher’s policy didn’t include the production of art books. I’d already sold Metronome to NBM, who did occasionally do art books, so I offered it to them. It’s a collection of work from over forty years, including early fan work and a selection of previously unpublished life drawings. Last year my regular Italian publisher, Comma 22, produced a different art book, just using my black and white illustrations.
PÓM: I think the last of you more recent works I want to ask you about is Metronome, a wordless black and white story which you did under the pseudonym of Veronique Tanaka. I’m intrigued by this, as it really is such an intricate piece, and must have taken quite a bit of planning to make it work. Why did you do this the way you did it, and why did it have to be under a pseudonym?
BT: Metronome had been percolating in the back of my mind for about fifteen years, after I read a short story (in French) called La Plage by Alain Robbe-Grillet. It’s a haunting atmospheric piece but it’s existential – nothing happens in it! Here’s the story: some kids walk along a beach. That’s it. The waves come in, the children leave footprints in the sand, a seagull is forever swooping before them, a bell tolls in the distance. The mental images are repeated over and over. This gave me the idea to do a silent story consisting of repeated images that at first seem unconnected but, as the strip progresses, the images begin to assume meaning until a story emerges. And, unlike La Plage, there IS a story for the reader to perceive.
The strip is presented on a strict four by four panel grid, across sixty four pages and is in 4/4 time, a beat for every image. All the images are what’s going through the mind of a masturbating musician! The story of a doomed relationship. You’re right. It did take ages to work out and structure. The images are all drawn in an iconic manga style – simple, symbolic. So it was a very experimental piece. It didn’t even look like my work so I decided, as part of the experiment, to put it out under a pen name. At first I was playing with male Eastern European names for some reason, then realised, because of the style, that it had to be Japanese. Then I thought “why not push it a little more?” and it became Veronique Tanaka – the Franco-Japanese concept artist! It was a bit of a joke. If you look at page 31, where the couple are walking over the bridge, the shadows beneath it spell ‘HOAX’. To their credit, NBM didn’t try to persuade me to use my real name. This spring, two years later, I decided to ‘come out’ after being advised by NBM publisher Terry Nantier that we’d sell more copies if I did. Although it had some great reviews (I even did a couple of interviews in the persona of Veronique) it sold very little.
(a page from the fascinating silent graphic novel Metronome by ‘Veronique Tanaka’, now known to be Bryan, published NBM)
PÓM: How did Grandville come about?
BT: It’s really quite strange, for me at least. Usually I work on ideas for graphic novels for literally years before I structure and script them. I have several folders containing notes for GNs, one of which I’ve had for around fifteen years, and it’s still not reached critical mass – the point where all the groundwork has been done and the story and what it’s about has taken shape in my mind. Grandville was the complete opposite. After I’d finished Alice, at the time I was working on Metronome and The Naked Artist, I was leafing through a book on mid-nineteenth century illustrator Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard that I’ve had for years. He was a big influence on Alice illustrator John Tenniel. He did many caricatures of anthropomorphic animals in then contemporary dress and he worked under the pen name of ‘JJ Grandville’. The concept came to me in a flash: I immediately visualized a steampunk version of La Belle Epoch, fin de siècle Paris. Grandville could be the nickname of Paris, the biggest city in the world, in a world dominated by France and populated by anthropomorphic animals.
For some reason I knew from the start that it must be a detective story – perhaps thinking of the first detective, Eugène François Vidocq and Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. I’ve never done an anthropomorphic story before, a venerable comic genre and one which I loved when a child – especially the Rupert stories of Alfred E Bestall. I made several hasty notes on the spot, including a line that it should include a homage to Rupert’s village, Nutwood, and then let it percolate in my mind for a week or so. Over this week I came up with the basic plot shape and my protagonist, originally a rat (which, as you know, I’ve a fondness for) but decided on a large English working class badger – Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard. (I made the rat character his adjunct.) Then I sat down and scripted it, straight out, incredibly quickly over a few days. It was like taking dictation. Usually I spend much more time than this, working with thumbnail sketches and dialogue in pencil but this time I could envisage it all without props. I could see it and hear the characters’ voices. Of course I polished the script and tweaked the panel breakdowns as I was drawing it but it was a printout of this first draft that I worked from.
PÓM: Can you tell us a bit about Grandville?
BT: For a while I’d wanted to do one of those types of story which start small and parochial and just gets bigger and more exciting as it goes along. Grandville starts with LeBrock investigating an apparent suicide in a small English village (the Nutwood homage I mentioned). The investigation leads him to Paris where he finds himself on the trail of a ruthless death squad. He has to use all his deductive skills and his natural badger ferocity and tenacity to get to the shocking conspiracy at the heart of the matter and the explosive climax. Grandville is a detective thriller and the story fairly zaps along. I structured it to be very fast-paced. There’s also quite a lot of humour and several comics in-jokes, such as the cameo of Tintin’s Snowy as an opium addict in a den based on the famous Gustave Dore illustration and the French BD character Spirou as a bell boy. One panel is a pastiche of Edouard Manet’s painting ‘A Bar at the Folies Bergere’. It’s a fun read. The book is created to be a nice artefact in itself. It’s clothback with a stylised cover design, like an old-fashioned book. It has steampunk Art Nouveau endpapers and the printing quality is absolutely marvellous.
(the exciting opening chase scene with delightful steam powered vehicles in the streets of Paris in Bryan Talbot’s Grandville, published Jonathan Cape in the UK, Dark Horse in the US)
PÓM: Since we started this interview you’ve become Doctor Bryan Talbot, haven’t you?
BT: Absolutely, just two days ago as I write this. It came as a real bolt from the blue when I received the letter informing me of it, a few months ago – completely unexpected. As far as Paul Gravett knows this is the first doctorate to be given in the UK for work in the comics medium. Charles Schultz and Art Spiegelman have both received doctorates in the States. The award was an Honorary Doctorate of Arts for my ‘outstanding contribution to the Arts as a writer and graphic artist’ and, though all my major work was mentioned in the citation, really it was for producing Alice in Sunderland. Universities like to recognise work that’s been beneficial in some way to their communities.
The ceremony itself, held at Sunderland’s football ground, the Stadium of Light, was terrifying. I came on the stage last in the procession, just behind the Chancellor, Steve Cram, and had to sit there with the gowned academics while what seemed like hundreds of degrees were conferred, a total nervous wreck until I’d given my acceptance speech, after which I could relax. I’m used to speaking about comics in public but this was a completely different experience. Also, I wasn’t going to read the speech out for fear of losing my place so I did it from memory. Fortunately I actually remembered it all word perfect for the first time! My wife was there, my two sons Robyn and Alwyn, and my eldest granddaughter Tabitha, to whom Alice is dedicated, so it was a real family occasion.
(Bryan with his doctorate, pic from and (c) the Sunderland Echo)
PÓM: I’m very pleased to hear, as you mentioned back a bit, that you’re going to be doing more Grandville. Will they be coming out about once a year, or what?
BT: I’m not sure. It all depends on how much I stay put here to get on with it and how many invitations to conventions and comic festivals I accept. I’ve been trying to cut down on them but it’s hard to refuse, say, an invite to visit Australia or Brazil or a beautiful part of Italy, wherever. Perhaps they’ll be every year and a half or two years. I’ve already written the next album, Grandville Mon Amour, have pencilled about half of it and have the next two roughly planned out. I’m hoping to do a total of four or five, so they’ll be like a collection of Tintin albums. It all depends upon how the first two sell, though Grandville is being published in eight countries so that bodes well.
PÓM: As you mentioned your pet rats, do you still keep them?
BT: I’m afraid not. Not for around twelve years.
PÓM: How did you start keeping rats as pets, in the first place?
BT: When my youngest son, Alwyn, was twelve he got the notion that he wanted a pet rat. Like most people, we had preconceptions of what rats were like and spent several months trying to dissuade him, to no avail. One of his school reports was particularly good so to reward him we decided to get him one of the wretched things. I seem to remember that it cost about £13. That was for the rat, cage, feeding bottle, sawdust, everything. The rat actually only cost £1.50. It was a male white rat about five weeks old and it was so cute and intelligent that it immediately became the family pet. He named it Harpo. It used to sit on my shoulder as I worked at the drawing board and would join us on the settee as we watched TV at night. After he died we got another. We had around eight altogether, serially. Rats have a very short life span, around three years. After a while we just got sick of nursing them to death, it got too upsetting. Without the rats, especially Harpo and Beatrix, the second one, I couldn’t have done Bad Rat. Grandville, by the way, is dedicated to Alwyn who’s now a brilliant illustrator and concept artist for computer games.
PÓM: I know you take quite a bit of care about your work, and you’ve mentioned things like storytelling grammar and subliminals here already. Can you expand on these a bit, with some examples we can go look up for ourselves, if possible?
BT: To work, subliminals shouldn’t be seen by the reader. They are often built into the composition of illustrations and work on a subconscious level. Only strong images of sex and death work – images that are hard wired into our brains. If you look through Arkwright especially you should be able to find skull images in stains on walls or in the folds of curtains. In the Tale of One Bad Rat I needed the reader to empathise with the protagonist Helen, an abuse survivor. One of the ways I did this was to place the eye level in most panels exactly on Helen’s eye level. Even when she’s in a crowd, we’re at her eye level, not the eye level of people surrounding her. Of course it would be boring to use the same eye level all the time so, for dramatic effect, there are upshots or downshots but for most of the time we are “with” her.
I did this placement of eye level to a greater degree and for a different effect in Heart of Empire. In the story, the protagonist Victoria is, to start with, a stuck-up, prejudiced, miserable piece of work and, like Heart of Darkness, the inspiration for the title, the story is a voyage of discovery for her. Her character changes for the better as a result of her experiences. To visually accentuate this, for the first half of the story, I placed the readers’ eye level at the height of people around her (she’s about six foot six), distancing the reader from her and her views. Halfway through the book, she goes through a traumatic event and at this point, our eye level shoots up to hers, staying with her for the rest of the book. Also in the first half I made her pupils very small. This also has a distancing effect on the reader. We are subconsciously attracted to people with dilated pupils. At exactly the same point as we jump to her eye level, her pupils suddenly dilate (a result of the hallucinogenic drug she’s unwittingly taken kicking in) and remain big for the second half. This was something that I planned in the structure and maintain throughout the three hundred and odd pages of the novel apart from instances where another angle is used for dramatic effect. I almost always have compositional lines running through one panel to the next to lead the eye. I do all sorts of storytelling stuff like this. It keep the process interesting.
(from Belle Epoque Paris to picture postcard rural England in Grandville, by and (c) Bryan Talbot, published Cape (UK) and Dark Horse (US))
PÓM: And just what is the significance of the number 23, which I notice peppered throughout your work?
BT: Ha ha! I tend to use it if I need a number. It’s a joke really, a reference to the twenty-three enigma and the magical number five. I first came across a description of it in Wilson and Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy and it does seem to crop up in all sorts of synchronistic ways. Writing the scene in Bad Rat where Helen shouts out the order number of the lunch she’s carrying to diners in the pub, I automatically typed in ‘twenty-three’. Then I thought to change it to something relevant to Beatrix Potter’s life, which I do throughout the story. For example, the name of the pub is the Herdwick Arms (Herdwicks were the breed of sheep that Potter kept). So I checked to see how many of Beatrix Potter’s ‘little books’ were published. That’s right, it was twenty-three. A Jim Carey film came out a year or two ago based on the twenty-three enigma but apparently it did a really bad job of describing it.
PÓM: Bryan Talbot, thank you very much for all your time and your patience over the four months or thereabouts that we’ve been doing this interview. It was a genuine pleasure, and an honour.
BT: My pleasure.
FPI would like to thank Bryan and Pádraig for taking so much time to put this interview together; the first part, in which Bryan talks about some of his earlier work such as Brainstorm, Luther Arkwright, 2000 AD, the Sandman and The Tale of One Bad Rat as well as early influences (like being exposed to 60s era Ditko and Kirby comics) can be found here. You can keep up with Bryan through his official site here and Pádraig’s LiveJournal here; Grandville is published in October by Jonathan Cape in the UK and Dark Horse in the US and comes highly recommended (Richard’s review can be read here).
(Bryan also wrote some notes on the 23 phenomenon for the Heart of Empire CD-Rom, which I’m including here with his permission):
5 and the 23 enigma
Five has long been regarded as a magical number. The lines in a pentagram conform to the divine proportion, the Golden Section. It is the human microcosm; the number of humanity forming a pentagon with arms and legs outstretched. The pentacle symbolises the whole, the quincunx being the number of the centre and the meeting point of heaven and earth.
Five is the deity (pick your own) plus the four elements Earth, Fire, Air and Water. The Discordian Law of Fives holds that all important incidents and events are linked to the number 5, or some multiple of 5, or related to it in some way, depending on how hard you look for it. Whether you believe all this or not is a matter for you and your psychiatrist: I¹m just shooting you the sherbet, Herbert.
Five is the sum of 2 and 3, the first odd and even compounds. 1 is Unity: God alone, 2 is diversity, 3 (1 + 2) is the compound of Unity and Diversity, representing all the powers of Nature.
The Roman numeral for 5 is V (for Victoria) and the V-for-Victory sign made famous by Churchill during WW2 was formed by holding two fingers up and pressing three fingers down. It worked, didn¹t it? He won. Of course in Britain, turned the other way round, it means ³fuck off!² and supposedly derives from the time of Agincourt and Crecy, when the French (who used crossbows) would cut these two fingers off captured English longbowmen to put an end to their ability to draw a bow. When the sides faced each other on the battlefield, the English archers would wave their two fingers at the French in a gesture of defiance.
Not only are 2, 3 and 5 part of the Fibonacci sequence, but a whole quasi-mystical school of thought has sprung up around the number 23, based on Jungian synchronicity and Quantum Mechanics: everything-is-tied-into-everything-else, the Quantum Inseparability Principle which destroys the old Newtonian model of cause-and-effect.
There is no such thing as coincidence, only links we can¹t fathom. This quantum causality principle is also an explanation of how Magick could conceivably work.
For some reason, the number 23 has great significance to the universe and crops up in meaningful ways to indicate this.
This was first noticed in the 1960s by writer William S. Burroughs who knew the captain of a ferry in Tangier by the name of Clark. He told Burroughs that he¹d been running the ferry for 23 years without a single mishap. That day, the ferry sank, killing Clark and everyone on board. That evening he switched on the radio. The headline news was of the crash of a plane flying into Miami. The pilot was a Captain Clark and the number of the flight was 23.
He began keeping records of odd coincidences and found that the number 23 recurred in strange events over and over again. And, strangely enough, it does seem to do just that.
23 in telegraphers¹ code means ³bust² or ³break the line² while hexagram 23 in the I Ching means ³break apart². Parents contribute 23 chromosomes each to the fertilised egg, while within DNA itself there are strange bonding irregularities at every 23rd angstrom.
I can¹t list all the occasions where 23 has a significance in literature or movies but, the next time you watch a film, I bet the murderer is in room 23 or the disaster is going to happen on the 23rd of the month. 23 Skidoo!
Much of this and more is contained in the books of Robert Anton Wilson.