Director’s Commentary: Bearding Stephen Collins in his den
Our latest guest to take the Director’s Commentary stage is Stephen Collins – some of you will already be familiar with some of his output from his work in the Guardian and the anual Cape/Observer/Comica short graphic competition (something we always look forward to). When we heard Stephen had a full length graphic novel coming out this spring from Jonathan Cape, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil we knew we had to ask him to be one of our Commentary guests, partly because we were excited to see what he did with a full length work and partly (I freely admit it) because we love being able to use the title The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil… I’m glad to say Stephen was able to fit in a guest post for us, so here he is to tell us a bit about working on his new book:
Long-form comics, as I have now learned, are a slow business. Where a novelist will write the words “he sat in the living room and looked out of the window”, the cartoonist has to work out exactly what the living room looks like, where the window is in it, what the window looks like, what time of day it is, what ‘he’ is even wearing, etc. Comics are second only to animation in terms of its glacial pace of production versus a shockingly quick speed of consumption (my book of two years’ work takes about 45 minutes to read). It is an obsessive’s art form – stultifying, maddening, labyrinthine, torturous – and I absolutely love it.
Years ago now, Jonathan Cape first suggested I consider having a go at a longer form comic after I won the Cape/Observer Graphic Short Story Prize. Great, I thought, and promptly went mad trying to think of ideas that I could see through to a longer book. I was used to short form sketches – comedy stuff mainly like my Guardian stuff – and the thought of doing a whole book seemed very daunting. After going down a few creative dead ends my wife Hannah suggested I “just do a book about a man who grows a massive beard or something”, and I was sold. It sounded catchy somehow, stupid enough to be intriguing but also weirdly resonant of other things – masculinity, hippies, untidiness, chaos. Beards have metaphorical baggage. I was hooked.
What unfolded over the subsequent writing process was a weird sort of hybrid story – part children’s story, part existential horror poem – about a man, his beard, and the great black untidiness that we’re all headed to. As a first book it’s about 50% experimentation, mainly because I wanted to try out as many graphic storytelling ideas as I could think of that I hadn’t seen in my influences. The learning/experimentation process really slowed it down at first, as I worked out how to do a longer paced story while keeping it visually interesting. In fact I spent so long on the design stage that my drawing style had got better by the end of it than it was at the beginning – meaning I had to go back and completely redraw whole pages to make it look consistent:
The title ‘The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil’ was a joke title at first – I was just amusing myself with the clumsiest title I could think of, something Mitchell and Webb’s ‘Lazy Writers’ might come up with. But both my editor and agent jumped at it, saying it sounded great, so it sort of stuck. There’s just too much information in that title, which is kind of why I liked it.
The actual process of production started with plot, after which I wrote the text – a long form sort of poem written out as a Word document. I plan to write my next book ‘on the page’ as that keeps it a bit more natural and flowing, but pre-scripting suited me in this instance. This was largely because I’d started with a line that demanded to be a sort of loose poem, so I felt I needed to write it out in full first before I started drawing too much.
After writing, I began began by making a sculpy head of my character Dave, so I could draw him from all angles:
Then I started designing the pages fully in Photoshop, which is always helpful for resizing panels, flipping things, arranging text and so on. I wanted the whole thing, words and all, to be hand drawn for a warm look, so each page was printed out at A3 size (two sheets of A4 taped together) and traced on a lightbox using pencils to get the visual tone I wanted.
Once each drawing was finished it was scanned, and smartened up a bit in Photoshop to make the whites white and the darks dark, whilst trying to avoid too much digital messing. Here are a few ‘before and after’ process images:
I lettered the whole thing by hand in Photoshop using a Wacom pen tablet , and flattened the images to make a finished page. I’m not a big fan of type in comics, and I wanted it to all be hand lettered – even the production credits at the end.
I have no idea how long each page took, only that I had to work constantly on the thing when I wasn’t doing my illustration work, and even had to take my work, giant lightbox and all, on two holidays in England to get it all done. Here I am working in Devon when I really should have been doing something else:
On the whole though, it’s been the most satisfying creative experience of my life so far. When it was all finished I laid all the drawings out on the floor and felt pretty satisfied that I’d got it all done.
It was fun having this all-consuming creative project which kept me excited for such a long period of time, and I hope the enjoyment I got from making it communicates to the reader. My head is very much in my second long comic now, and it’s been so long since I started ‘Beard’ that it seems truly strange that it’s new to other people in 2013. But seeing it finally in print – I had my very own George Mcfly moment the other day when the first copy dropped through the door – really made all the effort feel worthwhile. Jonathan Cape did a great production job, and holding the finished book in my hands was a great feeling after it existing on a hard drive for so long. The embossed casing and Raymond Briggs endorsement really capped it off.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is published on the 9th May by Jonathan Cape. To see more of Stephen’s work, visit colillo.com, or follow him on Tumblr and Twitter. The fine Gosh Comics in London will be holding a launch party for Gigantic Beard on Friday 10th of May; facial fur optional.