The road from Wigan Pier: Bryan Talbot talks with Pádraig Ó Méalóid, part one
Today we have a wonderful treat for you – that notorious masked interviewer Pádraig Ó Méalóid has a cracking new interview for us, this time with the brilliant Bryan Talbot (or I should say Doctor Bryan Talbot now!) and, like his previous Alan Moore interviews here, its a long and in-depth piece, so we’re going to split it into two parts. This first part sees Bryan largely discussing his earlier work, from selling copies of Oz and volunteering artwork for the early Tolkien Society to Brainstorm and the Head Shop era of Underground Comix, the birth of his seminal Luther Arkwright, the importance of Michael Moorcock, the influence of Ditko and Kirby, Near Myths, pssst!, Pat Mills and 2000 AD, Chester P Hackenbush, The Tale of One Bad Rat, work for DC Comics and collaborating with Neil Gaiman on the Sandman among much else. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did; without further ado over to Bryan and Pádraig:
(the lovely clothbound cover to the UK edition of Grandville by and (c) Bryan Talbot, published Jonathan Cape)
Pádraig Ó Méalóid: You were born in Wigan, is that right?
Bryan Talbot: Yes I was, not half a mile from the pier made famous by Orwell.
PÓM: What sort of a place is Wigan?
BT: Today, I don’t know. I left when I was eighteen to go to college in Preston and seemed to get stuck there until I moved here to Sunderland ten years ago. In the fifties and sixties it was a small northern industrial town built on coal and cotton. I remember my days there as almost always being sunny but that’s obviously a false memory.
PÓM: Did you have a happy childhood, would you say?
BT: Yes I did. In the spoof biography of my parallel world self in Heart of Empire, I say I was the son of a sailor and a mill girl. This is perfectly true, though my dad left the navy and became a power station worker and my mum learnt hairdressing and opened a salon in the front room. She worked six days a week until nine every night and sometimes on Sunday. Dad worked long shifts, including nights, so usually he was either in bed or at work. As an only child this left me on my own for most of the day, so I spent it making up stories with my toys (usually starring the Lone Ranger) as the characters. My folks worked so hard because I suppose they were upwardly-mobile. We had the first TV in the lane and I grew up being babysat by the Lone Ranger, the Marx Brothers, Richard Greene’s Robin Hood, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, Popeye, Flash Gordon and, more traumatically, Quatermass and the Pit. I soaked up all these influences like a sponge.
PÓM: Did you always want to write and draw comics, do you think?
BT: Well, I’ve always been into them. I ‘read’ comics before I could read, my folks getting me the nursery comic Jack and Jill from when I was three or four, and when I was five an uncle gave me a few old Giles annuals, which I loved. I didn’t understand the politics in these cartoons but I would look at the drawings, with their wealth of detail, ad infinitum. So – I decided that I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist when I grew up. By the time I was eight I was stapling together Woolworth’s typing paper and making my own comic stories but by that point I knew that I really wanted to be a private detective, so my aspirations to be a cartoonist were abandoned. I carried on doing the home made comics ‘til I was about fourteen but it never occurred to me that I could eventually do it for a living.
PÓM: Did you continue to make your own comics through your teen years, or did you give it all up at the age of fourteen, as you mentioned?
BT: I did go through the phase of thinking that comics were for kids and I’d outgrown them. I even gave all my Rupert the Bear and DC Thomson annuals to my cousins and sold my large collection of late fifties/early sixties DC comics for a penny each at school. And, yes, I stopped making comics. I’d found a new way of telling stories – making movies. My best friend then was Geoff Simm, who I knew from our small Methodist chapel and the grammar school. He was two years older than me. He was mad keen on films and he gave me the bug. We both asked for and got 8mm home movie cameras for Xmas and promptly formed ‘Scorpion Films Inc’.
For the next three years we made a series of five- to ten-minute movies, one of which actually won first prize in the Film of the Year competition at the Wigan Cine Club 1966! This was no mean achievement, as the other members were all over thirty and had expensive movie-making equipment. Geoff taught me a huge amount about editing and made me aware of contemporary avant-garde cinema techniques such as jump cuts and going into slow motion or black and white for effect. All this visual grammar later fed into my work in some form or another. He was a massive Alfred Hitchcock fan and we’d go to see Psycho, for example, and discuss the movie-making afterwards. We even made a ten-minute homage to Hitchcock, called When Jonathan Came Home, with me playing the eponymous murderer, stuffed with flashbacks, jump cuts and clever compositions.
Geoff went on to go to the London Film School on the strength of this and I didn’t see him again for over ten years. One day I walked into Forbidden Planet in London and he was there working behind the counter. Apparently film school had knocked the desire to make movies out of him and he was now a struggling writer, with one book of short stories in print. He’d also become gay – if one can ‘become’ gay. When I knew him he was dating girls. In fact, my first girl friend was his girl friend’s best mate. Geoff was the first person I knew to die of AIDS, right at the start of the outbreak.
As for comics, I didn’t ‘outgrow’ them for very long. Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland – or was it Monster World? – started running beautifully rendered adaptations of Hammer Horror movies and publisher Warren picked up on their popularity. As a result, they started publishing the horror comics Creepy, and later Eerie. In issue ten, I think, of Creepy, I read a comic strip that totally blew me away and, basically, turned my head around as to what I thought comics were and what they could do. The strip was called Collector’s Edition, written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Steve Ditko in an amazingly detailed cross-hatched style that I’ve never seen him use since. It was a groundbreaking strip in comics grammar terms and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I read it. Still one of my favourites. I’m not going to say any more but please search it out and read it. After that I was a confirmed comic reader again and actively went out to find some. What did I find? Marvel comics at the peak of their renaissance and immediately fell in love with the work of Jack Kirby.
(Bryan signing copies of Alice in Sunderland at the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet)
PÓM: So did you study art at any point?
BT: My art education was a complete and utter cock-up. At grammar school the art teacher didn’t teach, just read the newspaper while I drew what I liked. At first these were Leo Baxendale style cartoons, teeming with daftness. Later they were pen and ink copies of horror movie stills or really bad superhero drawings. I invented a British superhero called ‘The Saxon’ who was a reincarnation of Robin Hood! This was around 1967. I barely scraped through A Level art and went to Wigan School of Art for a year, where I learnt even less. Here I was taught by exhibiting abstract artists – fine art fascists who refused to allow the creation of any form of figurative art. Abstract was very definitely the vogue at this time – 1970 – and anything vaguely realistic was looked down upon by the wannabe avant-garde lecturers. Going to interviews with a portfolio of half-hearted abstract paintings, I failed to get on a fine art course. This was unsurprising in retrospect, especially as I said at the interviews that if I was accepted I’d use the time to draw what was what we’d now call a graphic novel. Comics are now becoming begrudgingly accepted as an art form. Back then they were considered to be on a par with patterned toilet paper.
PÓM: So you had plans for a graphic novel back in 1970?
BT: I was a huge horror movie fan and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. Around 1968 in a horror magazine called Castle of Frankenstein I saw a news item announcing that Poul Anderson’s novel The Broken Sword was being adapted into comic form. Being a comic reader, I was completely enthralled by the idea. A comic that’s a complete novel! I immediately set about creating my own – a sub-Tolkienesque fantasy epic. I plotted out the entire thing, did a few character sketches and laid out a few pages but that’s as far as it got. This is the book I was proposing to create as a project at the fine art college interviews! I never forgot the concept of comic-as-novel though and that lead directly to me starting Luther Arkwright eight years later. I only discovered recently that nothing came of the Broken Sword adaption either.
Shunned by the fine art colleges, I managed to scrape onto a graphic design course in Preston the week before the autumn term started. The abstract paintings were ignored at the interview but one of the lecturers rather liked some of the illustrations and cover I’d done for the Tolkien Society fanzine. Still, it was the wrong course for me. No illustration was taught on the course, which had a very strong typographical bias. No life drawing, nothing. I did learn about layout and design – things that did feed into my comic work – but it was only after the course finished that I started going to the library once a week and taking out books on anatomy, composition, perspective and so forth and basically teaching myself. I later did life drawing evening classes.
PÓM: Can we go back to the Tolkien Society fanzine? How did you get involved with that?
BT: My wife and I were some of the first members of the Tolkien Society, when it was formed around 1970. That was a couple of years before we were married when we were aged sixteen and eighteen respectively. I saw their advert in Oz magazine, of all places. I was a street seller for Oz and the underground newspaper International Times (AKA IT). They were the first places I saw the work of people like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. We lived in London for about three months in 1970 and once we went to a Tolkien Society meeting, which was a strange affair. It was held in the apartment of the person who founded the society, a charming eccentric old lady who called herself Belladonna Took (a character in Lord of the Rings). At the meeting I volunteered to provide illos for their magazine Mallorn. I also did the very first cover for Dark Horizons, the fanzine of the newly formed British Fantasy Society.
PÓM: Let me drag you back just a little bit more, before we get back on track. How did you end up selling Oz and IT?
BT: It was one of the methods of underground press distribution. Oz and IT used to have ads in each issue asking for street sellers. If you bought copies in bulk – I think it was over a dozen or something, you got them half price. You could then sell them to friends or the public at cover price. I used to sell them in the Wigan Boys Grammar School when I was in the sixth form.
A bunch of us actually had a secret ‘underground’ clubroom over the art studio. After the end of day bell went, we’d climb up through a hatch in the wall above the door into a large attic space than ran the length of that school building. We named it ‘The Roof Beam Club’, (We all studied medieval architecture as part of the A level art exam curriculum. I can still identify a medieval church or cathedral within fifty years!) Anyhow, we’d stay there after hours, smoking dope and reading this subversive literature. We decorated the walls with pages from unsold underground mags. To get out to go home, we had to crawl out of a small window, traverse a few roofs and climb down a drainpipe by the back toilets! Looking back, it was extremely dangerous but we didn’t give a toss back then.
I recently wrote a piece on Moorcock that dealt with my grammar school days [for Heliotrope].
PÓM: One of the things I find fascinating about your career arc is that you’ve gone from underground comics to having a mainstream publisher in Jonathan Cape, very much an upright old publishing house. So, if I could start at the beginning, how did you end up doing your underground comics?
BT: I was unemployed! In the seventies I was a huge fan of underground comix and had even started drawing one while at college. After I finished the graphic design course in Preston I was without a job and had a wife and two sons, meaning that I couldn’t afford to move down to London where the majority of graphic design jobs were. I’d met Lee Harris when I was in London a couple of years earlier. He ran a head shop in Portobello Road – Alchemy – it’s still there to this day – and he’d offered to publish the comic I’d started should I ever finish it. I had time on my hands, in between looking for work, so I completed the comic. It took me about five months to pencil and ink twenty pages! I hitched down to London and showed it to Lee and he was as good as his word and published it. In total we did six issues from 1975 to 1978.
(the collected Brainstorm: the Chester P Hackebush Trilogy by and (c) Bryan Talbot)
PÓM: You’re talking about Brainstorm Comix, I presume? I have the collected volume on the shelf here in the library.
BT: This was at the tail end of the underground [UG] comix boom (though they still exist, for example Jim Stewart’s Ganjaman) and, by this time, the psychedelic adventure story was an established genre within UG comix. My protagonist was Chester P Hackenbush, the Psychedelic Alchemist. This sort of story goes directly back to Alice in Wonderland. In each story of the Chester trilogy, he goes on a mind-bending trip, has an adventure and comes down at the end, back to reality. That’s basically the plot of Alice. Chester’s never really gone away. He still crops up as a counter culture icon in London street magazines and was in the Hawkwind graphic novel by Bob Walker. Alan Moore produced an American version of him, Chester Williams, in Swamp Thing, who became a regular member of the cast. Today there’s a London rapper whose stage name is Chester P who apparently used to read and reread his parents’ Brainstorms when he was a kid.
PÓM: I was wondering, seeing as you were writing a lot about drugs, did you ever get any sort of hassle from ‘The Man,’ if I may be colloquial?
BT: For writing and drawing the comics? No, not at all. Lee’s shop was repeated raided though, for selling perfectly legal cigarette papers and smoking pipes, many of which were commonly available in ‘respectable’ tobacconists. After Brainstorm, Lee went on to publish Home Grown magazine, a UK equivalent of the US’s High Times.
PÓM: Are we getting up to the time you started on Luther Arkwright here, or were there other things in between we need to know about?
BT: Not much. This was around the time I got my first full-time job as an illustrator for Preston Council and, after six months, a better paid one as a designer and illustrator for British Aerospace. I did my first professional strip, a one page piece about Hassan-i-Sabbah for Seed magazine, and I’d started writing and drawing the monthly one page SF spoof Frank Fazakerly, Space Ace of the Future for Ad Astra. I hated the job at BA and was terrible at it. After six months my contract ran out and they didn’t renew it, so I was back on the dole again.
(Frank Fazakerly, Space Ace of the Future by and (c) Bryan Talbot, image shamelessly borrowed from Stephen Bissette’s blog article)
The first Luther Arkwright strip was an eight-pager in the third issue of Brainstorm, in 1976. It was inspired by Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories. Moorcock had offered the character up as a template for other writers and all I wanted was an excuse to do a strip in line and watercolour wash, in the Richard Corben style. The strip was titled The Papist Affair and was a daft romp that featured such unutterable silliness as machine gun-toting, cigar-smoking nuns in black stockings and a kung fu fight with a fascist archbishop – a scene later plagiarized by Grant Morrison in one of his Near Myths strips that featured his own Cornelius clone, Gideon Stargrave. Along with Alan [Moore] and Neil Gaiman, Grant was a Brainstorm reader. There are influences from Brainstorm in his Animal Man and in Pete Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man.
After The Papist Affair I started thinking more seriously about Arkwright and parallel worlds and realised that here was a vehicle for the ‘comic novel’ story I’d so long wanted to write and draw. At this point I realised that Arkwright had to become his own character, so developed him away from Cornelius and the Cornelius story style. At the time I was getting invited to submit strips to other UGs, notably Hunt Emerson’s Street Comics, and I thought that I could serialize it by producing a chapter each time I was asked. I actually did a 4-page jam with veteran British UG artist Chris Welch featuring Arkwright and his characters Ogoth and Ugly Boot from Nasty Tales. Then along came Rob King, the owner of the Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop, who was going to publish a ‘ground level’ (i.e. adult but not UG) comic called Near Myths and he asked me for a contribution to it.
PÓM: You mentioned the Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop. That turned into Forbidden Planet International, I believe, and Joe, who now runs the blog for them, toils away in the basement of what I think was their original shop (actually it has moved a few streets since then, but its still serving the readers of Edinburgh – Joe). A small world, all the same.
BT: The original location of the SF Bookshop, where Near Myths was published, was actually a street called West Crosscauseway.
PÓM: What were you doing while you were working for BA?
BT: Primarily illustrating their catalogue, along with several other designers/illustrators. At the time, BA weren’t just selling aircraft to rich Arab countries, they were selling entire packages that included the airstrip, control tower, hangars and, incredibly, everything that went along with having a small community in the middle of a desert. I mean EVERYTHING from offices, schools, hospitals, sport centres – even a standard design BA mosque – and everything that went inside them, from pots and pans to snooker tables, washing machines and carpets. For a couple of weeks I was drawing nothing but chairs – kitchen chairs, secretaries’ chairs, armchairs… you get the picture. What they did was agent for all the companies that made the products, which meant producing a huge catalogue with all the items illustrated in clear line drawings, rather than in a disparate range of the photographic and drawn styles of the individual suppliers.
PÓM: So how did Arkwright fare in Near Myths?
BT: Very well, in that it was the most popular strip in there. Near Myths was very sporadic though. We produced five issues in about a year and a half. I’ve no idea how many copies were sold but we had national distribution and it was available in newsagents all over the UK. I edited issue 5 and 6, the one that was never published. In many ways it was the forerunner of Warrior and featured the first published work of Graham Manley, Tony O’Donnell and Grant Morrison (who drew his strips as well as scripting them). When the publisher did a moonlight flit to avoid debt, he left all the back issues in his flat. After six months the landlord dumped the lot in a skip so they’re a bit rare!
(the Adventures of Luther Arkwright by and (c) Bryan Talbot, published Dark Horse)
PÓM: Was it long after that that Arkwright got his own comic?
BT: About ten years. A year after Near Myths folded, French aristocrat Serge Boissevain began his seminal comic magazine pssst! He was used to the French comic scene and just couldn’t believe how behind the French the UK was. pssst! was quite astounding and brave, looking back at it. Serge sank a lot of money into the book. It lasted for a year – on a strict monthly deadline – it was about fifty pages, printed on top quality glossy paper and with the highest production values. It was the precursor of Escape and Deadline and the rest of the cascade of British adult comic mags that came out in the Eighties and Nineties. It published work by Ed Pinsett, John Watkiss, Richard Weston, Stephen Baskerville, Shaky Kane and Glen Dakin for the first time and published work by established creators such as John Bolton, John Higgins and Angus McKie. Paul Gravett was on the editorial side.
It also ran Arkwright. I reworked the chapters that I’d already done for Near Myths but by around issue five or six I was drawing new ones. When it went belly up towards the end of 1982 there was enough material to publish a first volume of the collected story so far – complete with cliff-hanger – and that’s just what Serge did. This makes Arkwright the first British graphic novel as such (the term being established in 1978 when Eisner brought out A Contract with God – in the same month that Arkwright began serialization in Near Myths). Shortly after this Pat Mills got in touch, asking if I wanted to draw Nemesis the Warlock for 2000AD. I worked for 2000AD for five or six years. I left because Serge offered to fund me to finish the Arkwright story, in the manner of a Victorian artist’s patron. Can you believe these rich folk? He paid me to draw it so that he could finish reading the story! He republished the first volume and put out the new material in two volumes. Concurrently the publishers of Redfox, Valkyrie Comics, a tiny independent based in Bristol under the helm of Chris Bell, issued it as a bi-monthly nine issue miniseries. And, around a year later, I was approached by Dark Horse. Their American miniseries had new covers and was re-lettered.
(Luther Arkwright strikes a pose from the Valkryie Press edition, by and (c) Bryan Talbot)
PÓM: Was Serge Boissevain the man behind Proutt, then, who are the publishers of the copy of that first Arkwright volume I have on my shelf here?
BT: Yes, Serge WAS Proutt. Proutt is actually a sound effect in French comics for a fart. I used it as such in Heart of Empire. Actually, his business name when he published pssst! and the first collected volume of Arkwright in 1982 was ‘Never Ltd’.
PÓM: As a matter of interest, how do you feel about the term Graphic Novel? I know some of your colleagues in the business rail against it to a great degree…
BT: I’m really not happy with the term. ‘Graphic’ has connotations of explicit sex or violence and ‘Novel’ implies that it’s a bastardized form of another medium, which it isn’t. Many GNs aren’t what could be considered novel-length and many aren’t even fiction. Autobiography and reportage are now covered by the ludicrous marketing term ‘non-fiction graphic novels’! Having said that, I do use the term to describe what I produce because everybody knows what you mean and there’s no other option that’s any less vague. ‘Comics’ or ‘sequential art’ is the medium, not the form. Alan Moore calls his GNs ‘big comics’. I suspect that this is partly to get up the noses of people who utilise the term graphic novel and partly to diffuse any accusations of pretentiousness. It’s still just as inaccurate though and could just as well describe an oversized comic page or a sequential mural. I don’t like ‘comics’ come to that as it’s a total misnomer. Still, as I said, one uses phrases that people understand. It saves time.
PÓM: While we’re on the subject, do you like the term Steampunk?
BT: I don’t mind it. I’ve no strong feelings about the term, which evolved directly from cyberpunk.
PÓM: I’ll come back to 2000AD a little later. Before that, though, do you remember what sort of reaction Arkwright was getting once it came out in its own title?
BT: Excellent. The first issue totally sold out within the first month or two – that’s 20,000 copies – and I did a six-week UK signing tour that was very well attended. A few of the signing sessions lasted a hectic three to four hours. That year the comic was nominated for eight Eagle Awards and won four and was awarded ‘Best British Work’ by the Society of Strip Illustration.
PÓM: I have to say, it’s my own opinion that it’s the best comic work to have ever come out of Britain, and it’s just a shame that it didn’t prompt more people to try doing it themselves.
BT: What, try doing a graphic novel?
PÓM: I just think that, where you led, no-one seemed to follow. I really can’t think of many good examples of writer-artist graphic novels coming out of the UK in the wake of Luther Arkwright. There’s Gary Spencer Millidge’s as-yet-unfinished Strangehaven, and Garen Ewing’s Rainbow Orchid, but really, there’s no great back-stock of British GNs following on from what you started. Or so it seems to me. I know you’re probably going to come back to me now with dozens of wonderful works I forgot!
BT: I think it’s because the comic industry in the UK is tiny compared with many other countries and the majority of our creators work for America. Could you call Watchmen a British graphic novel? It certainly came out of the UK even though it was published abroad. Recently, with the rise of the graphic novel in the real mainstream, in regular bookstores, there’s many examples such as Simone Lia’s Fluffy, Hannah Berry’s Britten and Brulightly, Posy Simmonds’s Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drew and many others. Going back to the eighties though, you’re right, there weren’t many. There was Al Davison’s excellent The Spiral Cage, Eddie Campbell’s Alec and Bacchus books and Paul Grist’s Kane trade paperbacks. There was also a flurry in the late eighties published by Gollancz in the first brief graphic novel boom, including Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate’s A Small Killing and Al Davison’s The Minotaur’s Tale among others not half as good. Escape also published Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Violent Cases.
PÓM: Mostly, I think, what happened in the eighties is that publishers, in particular Gollancz, as you mentioned, wanted to produce what they saw as a viable new form of publishing, but had absolutely no idea what it was all about. They didn’t do badly with some of what they had, but there were other things that no one in their right mind should have published. Now, twenty and more years later, they seem to have a much better idea what they’re doing.
Which leads me to ask, slightly before I meant to get to it, how did you find yourself with Jonathan Cape?
BT: Cape had recently started publishing graphic novels and I sent them a proposal and some sample pages of Alice in Sunderland before I’d started to work on it full time. They rejected it, I think because they found it impossible to imagine. It is a hard book to describe to people without them actually seeing it. It’s not as if you can say ‘it’s like such and such’. When I’d reached over three hundred pages and it was nearing completion, I made an appointment to see Dan Franklin, their graphic novel editor (and Salman Rushdie’s editor, by the way) and went down to London and showed him the book in printout (it weighed half a ton). He loved what he saw but said that he’d have to read the text before he decided whether to publish. I returned to Sunderland and had a black and white dummy made up at the local Prontoprint and sent him that. A few weeks went by but after he’d had a chance to read it he offered to publish it at once and bought the UK rights. Cape were so pleased at how it sold – it’s now in its fourth printing and has sold nearly twenty thousand copies in Britain – that they published the UK edition of The Tale of One Bad Rat and took the world rights to Grandville. I’m now working on Grandville Mon Amour for them.
(an elderly Alice Lidell in a page from Alice in Sunderland by and (c) Bryan Talbot, published Jonathan Cape)
PÓM: At what point did you start working for 2000AD?
BT: I’d first met Pat Mills at a meeting of the Society of Strip Illustration in an upstairs room in a London pub in 1980 and he was very keen to talk about what we’d now call the steampunk aspect of the Arkwright story, which he very much enjoyed. We talked quite a bit that night of him writing a retro SF story for 2000AD for me to illustrate. Nothing ever came directly of this but three years later, when Kevin O’Neill left 2000AD to work for DC comics Pat got in touch and asked if I wanted to draw the Nemesis the Warlock story, The Gothic Empire – another steampunk story before the genre definition. I’d already drawn a couple of things for 2000AD – a couple of Alan Moore stories, a Future Shock – ‘The Wages of Sin’ – and a Robusters strip for an annual – but this was the start of a four or five year stint with the comic.
At the time I’d spent most of the previous year doing illustrations rather than comics. It just so happened that I’d done an illustration of Adam Ant for Flexipop magazine – named after the free flexidisc single that came with each issue (a flexible 45rpm single given away free taped to music mags back in the day, notorious for scratching your deck’s needle! – Joe) – just before he broke and became a megastar. Suddenly I was THE Adam Ant artist and my pics of him appeared everywhere in postermags and the like. I’d actually never heard of him until I was asked to do the first illo. I was also writing and drawing a weekly strip in the music paper Sounds called Scumworld but perhaps the least said about that the better.
Working for 2000AD really tightened up my discipline as a comic artist, learning to meet continual deadlines and working tightly as a team with Pat and the letterer Tom Frame. I learnt a lot working from Pat’s scripts and from our interminable daily telephone conversations discussing aspects of the scripts. Before he started the Gothic Empire script we had a meeting in London and he asked me if I had any suggestions for the story. I immediately asked for a Frankenstein sequence, which went right in. I also said something like “Hey, the ABC Warriors haven’t been in 2000AD for a few years. Ro-Jaws is in the story. Why not bring Hammerstein and the others back?” He looked at me as if I was crazy. “Are you sure?” he said. I didn’t know what he was thinking about but I sure as hell found out when I had to draw half a dozen robots in panel after panel, all with their own unique and complicated anatomies!
After The Gothic Empire I worked on another two Nemesis story arcs plus the twenty-page Torquemada role-playing comic for IPC’s experimental Diceman magazine. I also worked on Dredd for a short time – one weekly strip, a couple of fully painted strips for the annuals and the twenty-pager for the first issue of Diceman. I still do occasional work for the comic. A year or two ago I did a couple of covers for the Megazine.
PÓM: You’ve been self-employed all your life, really, haven’t you? Was this a big decision for you, or did you just sort of wander into it?
BT: I was working in underground and alternative comics for about six years before offers of paying work began to appear and I was able to go self employed – around 1981 I think.
PÓM: A lot of your generation of UK comics people seemed to end up doing something in Sounds. What was your strip about?
BT: Scumworld was basically an underground SF comedy adventure. It was set on a world where the dregs of the galaxy end up – a planet with no law, a place ruled by warlords and gangs of pirates and thugs. The protagonist, Django Schaggnasti was a mercenary with no redeeming virtues whatsoever. I was recommended for the strip by Alan Moore when he quit after he started working for DC. He wrote and drew the previous one ‘The Stars my Degradation’. My brief was to be as hard-edged and underground as possible without them getting taken to court, so it was pretty gross. I was censored on almost a weekly basis. Still, I thought some of it was pretty funny and the story, which involved sentient cacti with a shared consciousness being exploited by human scum, was very original at the time.
PÓM: Are we ever likely to see it collected?
BT: I shouldn’t think so as the story is only half finished and I’ve no wish to go back to it at the moment. When the editor moved to KERRANG! he wanted to take the strip with him so it was discontinued in Sounds. Eddie (Campbell) was hired to do the replacement strip. Then he decided that Scumworld was “too heavy for KERRANG!” and dropped it.
PÓM: To go back to Luther Arkwright, did we ever find out what the acronym WOTAN stood for in the first Arkwright story?
BT: World Oracle: Temporal Alternative Nexus. I never saw the need to actually tell the reader the meaning of the acronym though we did have a contest in the Valkyrie comics for readers to guess what it was. No one came close, though one wag submitted ‘Wet orange T-shirts accentuate nipples’.
PÓM: I remember that competition! I think that’d probably what made it stick in my head for so long. I’m eternally grateful to you for finally letting me know. I really liked those old Valkyrie comics, you know, and had them all at one point. Now long gone, of course.
Is there going to be any sort of prestige hardback edition of the first Luther Arkwright story, to give the art a chance to shine properly? The same size as Alice in Sunderland would be nice, which would be about the same page-size as the three volumes of it that were published by Proutt back in 1980s…
BT: I wish. I’ve mentioned it to Dark Horse a few times over the years but nothing as yet. It’s possible. The next time they reprint Bad Rat, next year, they’re going to do it in hardback, like the Cape edition. If you would like a prestige Arkwright just for the art, you can always order either the Czech or Greek edition from Comics Centrum or Jemma Press respectively. The Czech one is a 14” high red hardback with an inlaid illo and gold title lettering. The Greek edition is black with a colour illo printed within the old Valkyrie cover design in white (if you’re nostalgic about it), 17” high and weighs around half a ton. Both are beautifully printed.
PÓM: I know you did a second volume, Heart of Empire. Are there any plans for any further volumes?
BT: I’ve been playing around with ideas for one since I finished Heart of Empire and actually a little before. I want to return to the original feel of Arkwright and its storytelling experimentation, black and white, designerly. I’ve still not decided what it’s really about though, about the meaning behind it and ‘til that becomes apparent it won’t gel. I imagine that it’ll be a few years before I do it since I’ve recently decided to do a series of four or five Grandville books.
(a lovely pencil work of the Kings Cross Airway Station from Heart of Empire, a nice echo of the gorgeous Bell Epoque Paris in his latest work, Grandville, by and (c) Bryan Talbot)
PÓM: Were you unhappy with Heart of Empire, then?
BT: Not at all, in fact I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a damn good science fantasy romp and every time I happen to look at it I’m astounded by the amount of creativity that went into it. It’s a very polished piece of work. If I get around to doing another Arkwright story I want it to be as different again and the hard thing is coming up with a story that is both original and at the same time set in the same milieu. Readers want a sequel to be like the predecessor. The way I did it with Heart of Empire was to have echoes of the original story, both visually and thematically, but have a radically different type of plot and storytelling style.
PÓM : Your next major work after Luther Arkwright was The Tale of One Bad Rat, which could not have been more different in subject matter, setting, or genre. How did it come about?
BT: I’ve described this in many interviews before and, indeed, even in the afterword of the book itself, so suffice it to say that I never set out to write a book about the psychological after-effects of child sexual abuse. It was an instance of the story dictating its own direction and taking me along with it. It was the first non-genre story I’d written so I realised very early on that the storytelling and drawing style had to be very clear and accessible to non-comic readers, to a mainstream rather than clique readership. It’s probably my most successful book.
PÓM: For me, I think that Bad Rat was the first time that comics dealt with real issues properly. It wasn’t preachy or moralistic; the story just worked. It was a strong piece of work, though, and I’m glad to hear of its enduring success. Did it get any adverse reaction at all, or were there any people who couldn’t understand how you were addressing an issue like that in what was still widely regarded as a children’s medium?
BT: Before Bad Rat there was Maus of course. The only adverse reaction I remember was from the Sunday Sun newspaper. They had a shock horror headline “BEATRIX CHILD ABUSE BUNNIES!” (remember that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a famous comic then). They’d gotten hold of the fact, presumably from an interview, that all the characters in the book were named after Potter characters (or people who figured strongly in her life) so the feature was along the lines of “Peter Rabbit a crack addict! Lucinda the doll now a prostitute!” Their indignation fizzled out halfway through though, when they asked the opinion of leading Potter authority Judy Taylor, chair of the Beatrix Potter Society and author of several books on her. She told them that she thought it was absolutely wonderful and the article finished by being extremely positive! It was as if the reporter had started off writing one sort of article and ended up writing another.
(one of the quite gorgeous scenes which appear in very moving The Tale of One Bad Rat, by and (c) Bryan Talbot)
PÓM: I think you’re the only major British artist of your generation not to have had a big project with Alan Moore. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing, do you think, or not really either of those?
BT: I’ve worked with Alan on a few short strips. He’s always said that we’d do a graphic novel together at some point but nothing ever came of it. We began what would have been Alan’s first horror strip, Nightjar, for Warrior, a strip which introduced the concept of an urban sorcerer he later recycled as John Constantine. When Alan and publisher Dez Skinn fell out we abandoned the strip, with only four pages drawn. Bizarrely, in 2003, over twenty years later, Avatar comics paid me to finish the first chapter, the only one Alan had written, for their Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures title; you can read about it on my site here.
More recently, we were intending to do one of the Wildstorm ABC titles together, a completely new take on Doctor Strange, but then DC bought Wildstorm and Alan stopped writing for them. I’d love to collaborate one day as he’s the best comics writer around.
PÓM: You did quite a bit of work for DC comics at one stage, like Hellblazer and some Legends of the Dark Knight work. Were there a lot of restrictions on what you could do with the characters, as opposed to if it was your own creation?
BT: No, not that I can remember. I didn’t write the Hellblazer Special (Jamie Delano did) but I had no interference with the artwork. With Mask, The Legends of the Dark Knight story, editor Archie Goodwin was very hands-off and supportive. The only changes he suggested were when I’d used a Britishism in the script. He’d supply the American term – e.g. ‘gurney’ instead of ‘trolley’. Apparently the concept of the Batman story was lifted wholesale and used in an episode of Buffy, or so I’ve been told.
(Bryan’s interesting take on Batman, (c) DC Comics)
PÓM: Did you enjoy working on Sandman with Neil Gaiman?
BT: Absolutely. Neil’s a writer who’s a joy to work with, especially if you like working from scripts of Alan Moore proportions. A couple of times he came and stayed at my Preston house for a day or two before he wrote a script for me so we could talk over ideas. Very often, the Sandman stories were produced right up to the deadline and I’d fax pencils of pages to him as I finished them and he’d phone to discuss them. Doing the pencils for the framing sequences for the Worlds’ End story arc, I drew a character in the background in an early episode which he then subsequently wrote in the script in later ones. My favourite Sandman story that I drew was August (contained in the Fables and Reflections volume – Joe). I used quite a few subliminal storytelling devices in that one, including eye level placement and the use of horizontals and verticals in the compositions. Most of the story takes place in a market place in Rome over a whole day. I placed the light source in such a way to simulate the sun low in the sky in the morning, climbing to its zenith at noon and setting in the evening, a left to right movement that happens gradually over about twenty pages. I doubt if any readers noticed this consciously but it would have had a subconscious effect on their perception of the story.
PÓM: More recently, you’ve been doing some work on Fables with Bill Willingham.
BT: That was about six years ago now, I should think, and was the last comic I drew for DC. It was set in the deep South during the American Civil War and, like much of what I happen to do, demanded loads of research. Bill seemed to like it a lot. I still do occasional things for DC, the last being illos of Orpheus and Destruction for the Sandman anniversary poster and an alternative cover for Superman: World of New Krypton that comes out this month.
PÓM: DC’s Vertigo recently republished Dead Boy Detectives, which was an offshoot of Sandman, as a trade paperback. I have to say, it’s absolutely great to see all these things, slowly but surely, turning up as bookshelf editions.
BT: Yes, I was pleased that it eventually came out. Ed Brubaker’s original intention was to produce it in one volume, aimed at the young adult/Harry Potter market but, for some reason, DC didn’t collect the miniseries as soon as it was complete.
PÓM: There’s one other thing you did with DC that I want to single out, which is The Nazz, which I particularly liked. Are we ever likely to see a reprint volume of that?
BT: I don’t expect so. DC have never mentioned it. I still think that Tom Veitch’s script was one of the best post-Watchmen superhero stories.
FPI would like to thank Bryan and Pádraig for taking so much time to put this interview together; the second part, in which Bryan talks about some of his more recent work such as the astonishing Alice in Sunderland, the pseudonymous Metronome, the hilarious Cherubs (with Mark Stafford) and, of course, Grandville, can be read tomorrow. 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).