A year in the life of comics creators: Metaphrog
Regular readers will know that I have long been in love with the wonderful Louis graphic novels created by Sandra and John of Glasgow’s Indy comics publisher Metaphrog; the art and stories are beautiful, enchanting, quite suitable for younger readers as well as adults, yet on closer inspection, to the adult reader there are layers and levels that hint at darker, more complex structures and narratives below the colourful, adventurous facade. Chatting away to the guys several times this year at various events like the Edinburgh Book Festival we discussed them doing a guest post for the blog. Perhaps something about their Book Festival experience, or the many workshops they’ve done with schools and libraries promoting the medium, or perhaps a follow up to the splendid Director’s Commentary they were kind enough to do for us last year for Louis: Night Salad. And with the quite gorgeous new edition of Louis: Red Letter Day hitting shelves (beautifully redone and in the same hardback format as Night Salad, similarly priced – perfect Xmas gift material) we wanted to do something like that.
(The glamorous side of publishing! Metaphrog at the swish Edinburgh Book Festival launch party, pic from my Flickr)
So the guys went away and had a think and started writing… And it changed and evolved and kind of became a bit of all of the above. So Sandra and John talk to us about reworking Red Letter Day, their first Louis book, but also about their year as independent comics creators, about working with schoolkids, who ask them about their influences causing them to think about that subject themselves, about doing commissions for the Scottish Book Trust and working with others and more, travelling the length of the country for talks, workshops, events and festivals, so the piece has evolved into a bit of a window into a successful, busy year for a pair of independent comics creators and gives a little insight into their work and influences – hope you enjoy it! Over to Sandra and John:
When Louis – Red Letter Day was first released in 2000, we were amazed at the response. Style magazines, like i-D, newspapers, art and design magazines all picked up on this all-ages graphic novel. It got reviews and features in places that comics had not really reached before. And, we were even more astounded at the Eisner and Ignatz award nominations the book received.
Louis – Red Letter Day was the first Louis book and represented a big step for us working in full colour, with the additional worry of a big printer’s bill. But the book generated a buzz at conventions and sold out quickly. To this day it is still our favourite Louis book.
With the title out of print for over a decade people wanted to read it and the online serialised version had rekindled interest in the story, produced a different generation of reader and also generated even more positive reviews.
So the new hardback is welcome. And: it is a new book. Sandra has completely redrawn and repainted every single page, reworking some of the layout, and we’ve also added a section on the making of the Louis stories and how we work together.
(art from the Louis books by and (c) Metaphrog)
Looking back, this has been a really busy year. Louis –Night Salad, was long-listed and short-listed for several awards, received an Eisner nomination, and was Highly Commended for the Scottish Children’s Book Award, the first graphic novel to be recognised in this way.
The Comics Journal ran a long, retrospective interview with us talking to Gavin Lees about our work, and The Guardian invited us to do a guest blog about our experiences at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
We’ve also been involved in several exciting projects, including working with the playwright Gowan Calder on an experimental book for the Scottish Book Trust in collaboration with The Scottish Government: part play part graphic novel, a hybrid, designed for educational purposes, for reading and for role playing. Skint! is a resource to help adults and young people manage money.
For such potentially dry subject matter, the play is an amazingly entertaining and enjoyable read. It involved a completely different approach to making our Louis graphic novels. Working with a different writer meant John’s role changed completely – becoming more of a careful reader. Together we both decided how best to bring the characters and play to life in comics on the facing pages. We’ve already blogged about the process of making Skint! here. It was refreshing and enjoyable to work with other people on such an interesting project.
As part of The Growing Bolder Festival ,Glasgow Life invited us to produce “an artistic response” to a series of workshops we had carried out with senior groups, and also groups of young people in supported study units around the city.
Having carte blanche was great, but we found it a difficult subject to tackle. Doing a silent comic seemed appropriate. And, covering a life using key moments, (for example, birth, love, marriage and death) seeming to be the most likely, if not the most cheerful solution. With words, adding fragments or sentences, there was the risk of creating a precious tone with the language: or worse, something too pompous.
We worked in quite an unusual almost improvised way to complete the story. Using the original idea of “a life” we decided to juxtapose a natural tone with the snapshots of living. The result was The Photographs. We have had an amazing amount of feedback from hospitals.
Educators are increasingly looking to comics to encourage reading and in the past year we have had the pleasure of visiting schools and talking about our work and about the comic medium, travelling the length of the country from Stornaway to Guernsey. It is great to see comics or graphic novels respected and accepted in this way.
Outside of educational environments this year has also seen us delivering a variety of talks and workshops in arts centres and at literary festivals around the country including three memorable Glasgow events:
A talk at the CCA for Words Across the Water. This two day festival explored and strengthened links between Scottish and French culture and we had the pleasure of speaking with Alasdair Gray (probably the greatest living Scots writer and artist to most of us – Joe). Another longer talk at the Glasgow Film Festival on graphic novel adaptations, proved popular, generating an unprecedented amount of feedback.
And, we also delivered an Alice in Wonderland themed workshop at the Tramway for a Family Day when giant rabbits and packs of playing cards raced across the lawns or appeared suddenly at windows. Our workshop was for a mixture of adults and children of all ages and was great fun, allowing us to talk about the Alice books and their marvellous characters.
Nearly all the children we speak to read comics and they ask us about our favourite books.
It’s a difficult question when you have been reading all your life and love books. Reading is an adventure, and the more anarchic the book the better. Sandra enjoyed reading Fantômette, the adventures of a young heroine, schoolgirl by day, masked crime fighter by night. The books are addictive, and she was even told off by her teachers for reading the books under her desk at school.
John remembers being fascinated by the grotesque illustrations in the books of his mother’s childhood, and later laughing out loud at Down With Skool supposedly written by Nigel Molesworth (actually Geoffrey Willans) and illustrated by Ronald Searle. Although he had never been in the world of prep schools and “oiks” he could relate to the fact that “the school was built by a madman in 1836” and the sense of irreverence and certainly the wonderful comic illustrations. A little after this it would have been the Douglas Adams radio broadcasts and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. We often recommended the amazing Meaning of Liff he wrote with John Lloyd.
Both of us were lucky that our parents weren’t snobbish about comics and wouldn’t say: “That’s not a proper book!” Sandra’s dad had a collection of Tintin and Asterix, in the house when she grew up just north of Paris. But even in Greenock there was a bookshop with a spinner rack of the soft covered Hergé books. So in many ways we both grew up in parallel reading Tintin.
Sandra read other comics, or BD, the hardback format French albums, artists including Hugo Pratt, Tardi, Comès, Enki Bilal and Moebius to name a few, but she was also interested in comics from across the ocean, discovering the likes of Alan Grant, John Wagner, Frank Miller through USA Magazine, a publication available in France.
John, for his part, read British newsstand comics and Oor Wullie and The Broons, as well as black and white Marvel reprints. There were no comic shops back then but random comics would appear in newsagents’ shops, sometimes dangling from string on close pegs. As a teenager listening to music and going to gigs he still kept an interest in comics and loved underground comics particularly Zippy. These comix seemed to push boundaries and break down barriers in a manner similar to punk.
John also read RAW and Alan Moore stories. If you picked up Sounds or NME in those days you’d see strips by people like Savage Pencil who also provided covers for The Fall and for Sonic Youth.
People often talk about French culture supporting comics and seeing BD as the 9th art, and about the American comics but here in Scotland we have also found a rich tradition. Millions of children grew up reading The Beano or The Dandy, Oor Wullie and The Broons . It really isn’t surprising that the same people moved on to reading books or were already also reading books, and that comics are recognised as a path towards reading for reluctant readers.
More recently we are asked to recommend graphic novels of literary worth. Since most people are aware of art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis we try and suggest books that they may not have chanced upon. Paul Auster’s City of Glass by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. Paul Auster was involved in this adaptation of his own short story from New York Trilogy and the themes and preoccupations of the original literary work are emphasised by the images and formal experimentation in the comic. Ideas about isolation, observation and language are explored in a playful and entertaining manner.
True Swamp: The Memoirs of Lenny the Frog by Jon Lewis. The swamp seethes with ideas. The characters exchange thoughts of cities (rather than money) and live an altogether believable existence held firmly together by wonderful language. The drawings and words seem perfectly married creating something unique.
Through the Habitrails by Jeff Nicholson. Dark, Kafka-esque tales of urban despair, alcoholism and alienation. We had always wanted to read this book and someone (Jeff Nicholson?) handed it to Sandra at SPX.
Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer blends the surreal and the nostalgic creating comics literature that more people should be aware of. Giving talks has allowed us to re-read for research and read for pleasure: as well as classics like the Lewis Carol books, JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or Nabokov’s Pale Fire other works of literature, books that are not perhaps as widely know or recognised as they could be.
Life With a Star by Jiri Weil is a remarkable book, an astonishing, luminous work. The author spent years having to wear a star in Czechoslovakia as a Jew under the Nazi occupation, managing to avoid transportation and in a bizarre bureaucratic error cease to appear on register or record. Despite is particular subject the book remains somehow timeless rather than historical. Without losing its intense sense of place and dreadfulness no explicit mention is made of the persecutor (the Nazi German), or the persecuted Jew and the story is formed in a marvellously human and inclusive piece of writing that feels and reads very naturally. As with the very greatest works of literature this is a book that never leaves you.
You Can’t Win by Jack Black is another book with an amazing atmosphere, albeit a very different one. Once more a form of autobiography, although clearly selective, there is something extremely dignified about the story and, despite the protagonist living a life of crime and drug addiction, we feel for the character, and the subjects are sensitively treated rather than glorified. Reading, we encounter a host of colourful characters, Salt Chunk Mary, Foot and a Half George, and experience a world rarely explored in literature, as the Wild West era comes to a close.
Currently, alongside books of Morphy’s and Capablanca’s chess games, the non-fiction pile has Eva Fraser’s Facial Workout (which is great for preventing grin cramps)and the purple book, better known as The Paris Review Interviews. These amazing pieces have been collected and published in four (different coloured) volumes by Canongate and offer a wealth of information for anyone interested in life, people, words and writing.
FPI would like to thank Sandra and John for taking the time to pen this piece and share their thoughts with us; the very beautifully done new edition of Louis: Red Letter Day is out now and I think it makes a perfect gift. You can keep up with more from Metaphrog via their site.