Bryan Talbot: the best kept secret in comics.
(this interview was orginally published by Popimage)
Popimage: Big question to start with. Why comics?
Bryan Talbot: It's the medium in which I live, work and express myself. Just seems natural. I've always read comics, since before going to school, and always drawn. When I was a kid I'd draw comics for my own amusement; I'd staple together typing paper, folded in the middle, and start drawing a story, making it up as I went along. When I reached a few pages from the end, I'd wrap up the story. At junior school, a teacher once 'commissioned' me to produce one of my comics for him. Bastard didn't pay me anything, though!
I never realised I could make a living doing comics, though I knew I wanted to work in art somehow. It was only after I finished college, when I was unemployed, that I started drawing comics for the underground market.
PI: You have been plying your craft for over 20 years now but what was it like when you started both in the underground as well as mainstream industry?
It was just about reaching the end of the underground period, when the new 'ground-level' or 'alternative' comics were coming about, and material influenced by European comics like METAL HURLANT, HEAVY METAL and EPIC ILLUSTRATED. Mainstream comics at the time, with few exceptions, were pretty dire - dull and predictable superhero stories, bland melodramas with no blood, sex or swearing and no depth of story. It was only when the influence of underground comics entered the mainstream in the early eighties that these comics became interesting again, producing books like WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.
PI: These comics do have a bit of a bad rep though because of the hacks that kept the superheroes grim and gritty for many years afterwards and that damage is only now being repaired so to speak by Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and not least Warren Ellis.
Yes, but at the time they were wonderful innovations. They, and a couple of others at the time, are the high watermark of superhero comics. I've read very few superhero titles since then.
PI: So you never went to art school or anything like that, all your skill is acquired through years of drawing for fun?
My art education was a complete cock-up. At grammar school we were just given sheets of paper and told to draw. That was it. I used to spend most of my time doing big and extremely silly BASH STREET KIDS style cartoons, like the ones in the BEANO annuals by Leo Baxendale. Leo was a big hero of mine and eventually we became friends and were in exhibitions and such together.
I barely scraped through my 'O' and 'A' level art exams, and went to Wigan School of Art, a department of the technical college, to do a one-year foundation course. Unfortunately I learnt bugger-all here as well. I was taught there by three exhibiting abstract artists who had a total horror of figurative art. Abstract was very trendy then, realism scorned as old fashioned. As a result, all I learnt there was how to make abstract pictures; pretty damn useless considering my future career.
After this, I failed to be accepted at any fine art colleges because, I suppose, I just wasn't enthusiastic enough about the portfolio of abstract art I dragged around to interviews. At the last minute I managed to blag my way onto a graphic design course in Preston. After starting the course I realised that no illustration was taught there, no life drawing, nothing. I did learn typography, layout, use of technical pens and airbrushes, etc., but all the illustration I did there was what I worked into the brief myself.
After I finished the course I used to go to the library once a week. I got out books on art, perspective, composition, anatomy, etc., and learnt what I should have learnt at college.
PI: Based on your own experience would you advise people who aspire to become artists to go to art school?
Yes, but for Christ's sake do an appropriate course. I should have done an illustration course, and would have done if I'd realised that I was going to end up drawing comics for a living.
PI: The Adventures of Luther Arkwright have not proven to be as popular as WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS though it is certainly no less important, how did it come about?
The original strip, The Papist Affair (which is just reprinted in the BRAINSTORM collection) was an excuse to do a Richard Corben-type strip in line and watercolour wash, its story very influenced by the JERRY CORNELIUS books by Michael Moorcock. After doing this 7-page strip, I started to think more seriously about Luther and his millieu, and developed it away from the Cornelius influence, so he took on his own character.
PI: The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was an attempt to do an intelligent adventure story for adults that was every bit as rich as a text novel and was drawn in illustration-quality artwork, not in the American 'shorthand' style then employed by most comic artists. It was a reaction against the bland state of mainstream superhero comics of the time; The Adventures of Luther Arkwright had sex, drugs, swore, vomited, etc., - sounds inane now but, at the time, these were shocking things to see in comics. I thought "mainstream text novels and movies contain all this stuff - why not comic books?"
On the story level I also wanted to get away from the mainstream formula story; I wanted to create a story that was complex and multi-layered, one that had real depth, one that dealt with politics, religion, sex, philosophy - stuff that adults were into but was totally lacking in mainstream comics at this time (1978) - but was also a cracking good adventure. It's hard to imagine now, with books like HELLBLAZER and co. around for years, but I think The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was one of the first comic books to use 'real' magic, genuine occult material, as opposed to fantasy hocus-pocus.
PI: There are many similarities between The Puritan Empire and The Third Reich, is that a coincidence?
One of the themes of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright (and Heart of Empire) is that of history repeating itself. Also I think it brings it home to people to see things that have happened elsewhere transposed to your own country. I also used the fascist Puritan dictatorship to write in things that were going on in South Africa and Pinochet's Chile at the time.
Costume, buildings, even the language had to be researched. On this parallel, it's cool to speak in a mishmash of historical English styles - a sort of retro-slang. There's no 'thees" and "thous" though. I wanted it to be authentic-sounding, not corny, not like Stan Lee's Thor, for instance! Lots of visual research was needed, and not just from books. I've visited Rome, the Louvre, the British Museum, Windsor Castle, York Museum and The Metropolitan in New York, among other places whilst researching this book.
The look of the city has changed immensely from the first book. This very strictly non-ornamented black-and-white architecture of the Puritans has given way to this architectural fantasia. It's like a Christopher Wren fever dream or Mega City designed by Christopher Wren. The SF illustrator SMS is terrific with architecture. He's supplied background and partial inks on about 10 pages. A couple of them are real stunners. Hopefully the city'll be a character in its own right, in a similar way to Frank Miller's use of New York in DAREDEVIL, this constant presence.
The only old part of London that still exists, which is due for demolition, is called The Rookery, which is the slang term for it. Its real name is Alsatia. It's bordered by the Thames and the Fleet River and Holborn. The area used to exist in the real London in Regency times. It was literally a no-go area for the law, with open sewers. We visit Alsatia a couple of times.
PI: A Victorian SF city.
Not really. This isn't strictly speaking a steampunk story. It's as much Elizabethan and Regency-based SF as Victorian. Shakespeare and William Hogarth. The costumes took a lot of time to research. Some of them make superhero costumes look decidedly dull. The first time we see the Queen in the flesh, she's 12 feet high, counting her wig, in a vast hooped skirt covered with diamonds and pearls, with lace wings and a gauze cape and surrounded by her Daughters of Albion guard of honour, Valkyries with machine guns! And showered with rose petals!
PI: You've said she was "a walking nightmare."
Yes, this public persona is a facade. I won't say more than that. One of the threads running through the story is that 'things are not what they seem' and this applies to several characters in different ways.
PI: Luther Arkwright was the focal point of the first book, is he at the epicentre again?
Heart of Empire's central character is Arkwright's daughter, Princess Mary Victoria Elizabeth Boudicca Cordelia Miranda Arkwright Stuart. She's his and Queen Anne's daughter and she was born at the end of the last book, in the middle of the battle, along with a twin brother. Her twin brother was actually killed when he was 5 years old, by assassins who found their way into The Palace. The building was still under construction and so it was quite easy for them to gain access. We see this in the first issue. The old physician/alchemist Dee relates this to the Princess because she wasn't present. This event acted as a major catalyst and afterwards, the Queen withheld her affection from Victoria, almost blamed her for surviving the attack and one by one, everybody close to Victoria disappeared in a way.
PI: Did you find it easier to work with a character not as rounded as Arkwright, has it been to your advantage in describing her state of mind?
As I was saying, everyone close to her has disappeared. Lady Diana, her lady in waiting, Princess Diana on this parallel, was driven mad by the experience, Arkwright's not even involved, as he's vanished, presumed dead right at the beginning of the story and even her favourite uncle, Harry Fairfax, was banished from court. So she's been brought up alone and, on top of that, she's developed as she's grown up, these horrendous migraines. She has constant headaches and feels this pressure on her all the time. This leads her to vomit quite a lot and as a result of this, she's thin as a rake and about 6-foot-6 in height. She doesn't exactly have the hourglass figure that most comic book heroines do and also, because of the migraine, she's in a perpetually foul mood most of the time. She's a problematic heroine. As part of her character, she's a racist because of her upbringing: She's a princess in this empire that's dominated the world and is sucking it dry of its resources.
Luther Arkwright is in the story all the way through in one form oranother. He's there in the form of statues, paintings and street names. He's become a myth. There's stories that he'll come back to England in the time of dire need. All of these little myths have sprung up about him. He's the hero archetype.
PI: How would you describe Heart of Empire for those who have not read it?
It's a world of adventure, intrigue and very dark humour. It's high fantasy and low bawdyness. It's history run riot in a sci-fi multiverse of parallel worlds. It's at once serious and silly, mixing genres and having a wild ride with politics, sex, violence and religion. It's fun.
PI: HEART OF EMPIRE is a private project but you have also done many work for hire books. Which do you prefer?
I've always tried to balance personal work, such as [TALE OF ONE] BAD RAT and Heart of Empire, with commercial work (that takes me a fraction of the time and makes me more money), though I'd prefer to do my own projects all the time.
PI: What is your stance on censorship? (Asked in light of recent events at DC/Vertigo)
Why, what's happened there? (This shows how much I have my finger on the pulse!) I'm against censorship. It's fundamentally evil.
PI: There have been two recent incidents that have had people talking. The first was against Garth EnnisÃ PREACHER where a cover was pulled at the last minute and substituted. The reason was that the cover depicted a young Tulip handing her father a package which despite wrapped was obviously a gun. The second is Warren Ellis resignation from HELLBLAZER after only 10 issues due to DC denying to publish an issue titled 'Shoot,' the reason given that it would bring public backlash as Littleton was still fresh in people's minds.
Oh yeah, I did hear of them. There was also the instance of the ELSEWORLDS SPECIAL that was pulped by DC after they got cold feet about a Kyle Baker strip showing Superbaby sitting in a microwave, sucking a cow's teats, playing in traffic and suchlike. Strangely enough, copies made it to Britain before it was destroyed, so I bought a dozen and sent them to a comic dealer friend in the States to sell.
PI: ARKWRIGHT was 10 years in the making, did you ever feel you would never finish?
Damned right. Of course, you have to remember that I worked on SOUNDS (and other pop & rock mags) and 2000AD for about 5 years in the middle!
True but you still kept going with it, not many would have the stamina that takes. ARKWRIGHT as we agreed on had a long and difficult birth, do you think it had an impact on the world of comics?
I like to think so. It was serialised from 1978, years before any of the 'Brit pack' writers had started, and they all read it. It did away with thinks balloons, whoosh marks, wobble lines, POW! type sound effects and told a story in comics, for adults, that was structured like a text novel, not as a monthly book. This was years before WATCHMEN did the same thing. Steve Bissette and Michael Zulli, who discovered it together at the same time, even told me that it was the reason they both decided that they wanted to do comics for a living, when they saw what could actually be done with the medium. Over the years I've had many letters from creators saying that The Adventures of Luther Arkwright had a huge influence on them.
PI: I think many fail to give you credit here for The Adventures of Luther Arkwright as it has surely influenced many, Warren Ellis for example tells people to study your work if they are serious about entering comics.
That's very nice of him. I also read that he's telling everybody that Heart of Empire is the comic of the year. Coming from such a good writer, that's very flattering.
PI: You decided to do Heart of Empire in color, why was that?
I don't know; it's how I envisaged the story from the beginning. I suppose it suits the opulence and decadence of the city in the story. I also really like the way that HofE being in colour makes the first book (which is set 23 years earlier) seem as though it IS in the past - a little likelooking at a sepia-tinted photograph.
PI: Was Angus McKie the one you had in mind from the start?
Yes. I'd worked with Angus before on the TEKNO COMIX titles we did, and I got a handle on what he could actually do with the computer. Ideally, I would have liked to colour it myself, using blue line and wash, as I did with BAD RAT, because I'm a control freak when it comes to my personal comics. However, the book's taken over three years as it is and that would have taken me an extra year. Still, Angus has done a brilliant job, and the colours are far more radiant than with the blue line technique. He's also a perfectionist and will stick at something until he gets it right.
I supply Angus with colour guides, photocopies of the line work that I've had a go at with felt tip pens, full of scribbled annotations and with reference photos and such attached. For example, for the Italian scenes at the beginning, I attached photos I'd taken there of buildings, murals, tiled roofs, etc. After he's done the rendering, he emails me low resolution jpegs of the pages and we then spend ages going through them over the phone, with me saying, "Can you put a fade there? Can you make that bit blue?" and such, fine polishing the colours. Sometimes even after that, he'll send me a second version or I'll drive over to his studio and go through them with him again on the screen.
PI: So each issue has been a painstaking process in the search for perfection?
Yes, but even so, things slip through. Angus is working to strict deadlines and, very often, is right at the last minute. These can always be corrected for the collected book.
PI: What takes over after Heart of Empire?
No idea! I'm going to spend a little time developing some concepts, doing some writing. Also I'm going to be getting into computers; they're with us now and aren't going to go away. Practically all professional publishing now involves computers at most levels. Apart from that, I've some illos to do that people have been waiting for, including the picture for you! This month sees the publication of Brainstorm! , the 120-page collection of my underground work, including the Chester P. Hackenbush Trilogy and The Omega Report. I imagine that I'll be spending some time promoting that.
PI: As someone who has worked as a writer/artist and an artist what is the greatest difference between the 2 in your opinion?
Writing's the easy bit, the fun bit, especially before a word is typed and you're letting the imagination do all the work. Playing around with ideas, envisaging scenes, linking things together in new ways, surprising yourself by coming up with something you didn't expect. This is the 1% inspiration before the 99% perspiration. OK, the actual writing can be difficult, but it's nothing compared to the sheer volume of work that the artist has to do. For example, the script for Heart of Empire took me around 3 or 4 months' solid work. The artwork's taken nearly three years. And I find drawing very hard work; It doesn't seem to get easier, as I once assumed it would. Perhaps because I'm always pushing myself not to take the formulaic route, not to take the easy way out.
Comic writers are, by financial necessity, promiscuous. The writer will impregnate the artist with the story. The artist then goes off and labours for months and months until the story is delivered, believing that s/he has a very special relationship with the writer. Meanwhile the randy bastard is impregnating artists all over the place at every opportunity.
PI: This could describe quite a few writers today, Alan Moore and Warren Ellis spring to mind once more. A lot of creators today talk constantly about drugs in their books and so have you in the X-DIRECTORY where you published a story about yourself doing drugs. Care to comment any on drugs in particular or general?
Even a lot of top police now believe that cannabis should be decriminalised. By making pot illegal, the law automatically makes into criminals millions of otherwise law abiding citizens.
I was an underground cartoonist, I lived in the counter culture world where smoking dope was the norm. I stopped smoking it eventually to avoid the tobacco in the joints. Cannabis is not physically addictive, so there were no problems there, but the nicotine withdrawal was hell and, even now, I just have to have a cigarette now and again - usually when I go to comic conventions!
I love good red wine. That's my fave drug these days. Of course, sensible people don't take any drugs, just drink water and work out every day.
Avoid hard drugs. In my twenties, I saw half of the friends and acquaintances in the social scene I was in die from overdoses of hard drugs or needle-related illnesses.
As I say in the afterword in the BAD RAT album, I didn't set out to write a story about child abuse. This was a definite case of the story developing itself, completely going in its own direction, with me following in wonder behind. The story loosely plotted, it was while I was doing the research that I realised that I couldn't just have child abuse as a mcguffin, a mere plot device; it had to be what the story was about.
PI: What kind of research did you do for The Tale of One Bad Rat?
I talked to a couple of friends who'd been abused and read about a dozen books on the subject, which included psychoanalysis and transcripts of abuse survivors talking. I read about the same number of books about Beatrix Potter plus all her stories several times and visited her birthplace in London, house in The Lake District, the Potter Gallery in Hawkshead and other sites connected with her. I corresponded with playwright Eric Pringle (author of MEETING BEA, a play about Potter) and Judy Taylor, probably the world's leading expert on her. I joined the Beatrix Potter society for the duration of the book - their newsletters were always full of all sorts of information.
Apart from keeping pet rats, I read four books on them (admittedly two were simple 'keeping rats as pets' books, but they did yield a couple of interesting facts) and corresponded with the Fancy Rat Society. There was also a good magazine article on the Temple of Rats in India. I also checked out some of my standard reference books, such as THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SYMBOLS and some history books for references to rats.
I visited and photographed all the locations in the book, both in London and the Lakes and read four books on the lake District, including the semi-mystical THE SHINING LEVELS, which I refer to in the story. I also had to look up books on wild flowers, birds etc.
By the way the pub in BAD RAT, "The Herdwick Arms", does appear in THE SHINING LEVELS, as I mention in the story, under the name the Punchbowl. It's real name is The Masons' Arms and is in Crosthwaite and I've been going there since I've been fourteen. Masons have nothing to do with the story, so I retitled it, Herdwicks being the breed of sheep Potter was an expert on.
PI: How strong do you think the comics industry is today?
Not very. It's down to levels that existed in the early '80s. And I don't really know why. There's all sorts of explanations, from the fallback from the artificially inflated speculator market, to comic readers playing video games instead, to demographic reasons referring to a drop in the male American birthrate about 14 years ago, but I'm not convinced by any of these. It just seems as if reading comics has fallen out of fashion. This, despite the fact that today there's more comics worth reading that at any time in the industry's history. I'm just hoping that the market takes an upswing again.
PI: Hoping is one thing. Can you think of ways to make this happen?
A huge, multimillion pound (or dollar) cultural festival, right in the centre of London or New York with exhibitions of all the world's leading comic creators, panels, talks, parties etc. It would have to be absolutely massive to work - something all the media would cover, something people would want to flock to. In the past, major art exhibitions have had an effect on general cultural tastes and interests. It needs something to communicate to the public that there are comics for everybody. Know anybody with $10 million to spend?
PI: Unfortunatly not, though I have been discussing the concept of art-bombing with several people including pros. One idea is to every once in a while you buy extra copies of an issue you love and place them in strategic locations where people are likely to notice.
Such as where? Dentist's waiting rooms?
PI: As good a place to start as any, other places would be coffee shops, barbershops etc. Any place where people are waiting and there is something to read at hand.
PI: Are there any comics published today that excite you?
There's so much being published right now, it's hard to see everything. I'm enjoying Alan Moore's America's Best Comics series with the exception of TOP TEN. I only discovered BONE relatively recently and was knocked out by the storytelling and characterisation and whole feel of the strip. I have all the books now. Anything by Joe Sacco. He's had me hooked since PALESTINE; reading it was almost like being there. He's the only guy doing this sort of strip - in fact, he virtually invented it. He's doing reportage that's every bit as good as the best in any other medium. Work by Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano's is always worth a read (though I avoid the former pair's superhero titles). Frank Miller's always interesting. Anything by Robert Crumb or Hunt Emerson. Anything by Schuiten, Moebius, Bilal, Giardino and Bourgeon. Some small press, oh, lots of things.
PI: Any non-comics writers works yet to be read or recently read?
I've only recently read Campbell's HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, which deals with mythological archetypes, and was surprised at how many 'hero' tropes apply to The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, even though I consciously put in mythological resonances. I've been looking forward to reading Grave's I, CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD for a while now - I have the books. I've a few long rail and plane journeys coming up. Perhaps I'll start then.
PI: And just what advice does Bryan Talbot have for those who aspire to be writers and artists?
Practise, practise, practise.
Other interviews with Bryan on the site include: interview with Bryan conducted by an Italian fan named Lorenzo by email; and Slipping through the parallels with Bryan Talbot by Brad Cook - an amazing piece of work, as it's an interview with Bryan told by Hiram Kowolsky on this parallel! There's also an interview with Bryan on One Bad Rat, conducted by Dark Horse, and another on One Bad Rat done by the Boston Phoenix.
The design and content of this page and this entire website is copyright 1999, 2006 by James Robertson: all images are copyright 1999, 2006 by Bryan Talbot