Monday, 16 July 2018

From Wigan to Grandville - an interview with Bryan Talbot

Bryan Talbot is one of the most widely recognised and respected practitioners of graphic storytelling. His long career has produced a hugely varied, always relevant, body of work that spans many genres from superhero fantasy to documentary realism. His subjects cover machine-gun toting badgers, imaginary giant rats, civil engineering, history, social geography and biography.

Since the mid-1980s he has steadily accrued a string of top accolades. In 2009, Talbot was the first graphic storyteller to be given an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by the University of Sunderland, and in 2012 was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by Northumbria University. That same year, Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, a clever graphic memoir he co-created with Mary Talbot, won the Costa Biography Award. This year he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Bryan Talbot being signed into the Royal Society of Literature,
...using Lord Byron's pen! (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)
Just take a look at his body of work and the vast scope of some of his more ambitious tomes and you will know that Bryan Talbot is a busy man! So, The Scrawl is hugely honoured that he took the time to talk with Remy Dean, about anthropomorphising animals, the collaborative process, the development of the comic industry and whether Rupert the Bear is terrifying or not…

I was part-educated at Wigan College of Mining and Technology. During the mid-late 1980s, I found the ‘scene’ there a very rich and creative one. It was one of my student friends who introduced me to Hellblazer, which was when I first remember being conscious of the name Bryan Talbot as an artist, though I had also been reading 2000AD, to which he also made an important contribution. 

Bryan Talbot was born and raised in Wigan and also went through art college there. Soon after his graduation from Preston’s Harris College in the mid-70s, Talbot had started publishing his own indie comic, Brainstorm Comix, in which his character, Luther Arkwright made his debut. Later, a long-form edition of the epic Adventures of Luther Arkwright was published as a single volume and this is generally recognised as being the template for what we now consider to be a Graphic Novel. The Graphic Novel, or GN, is an extended form of storytelling using the comic strip format, tending to be more literate in tone and often tackling more ambitious concepts and serious themes. Talbot now has the deserved reputation of being the ‘Father of the British GN’ and is certainly one of the form's more prominent proponents. 

Years after I too had graduated, I visited an old college friend from Wigan and saw they had a big poster of artwork from The Tale of One Bad Rat – I think this was one of the first comics, along with what was coming out of the New York counter-culture, that I came across that really tackled serious social and political issues like child abuse and homelessness, whilst ultimately remaining an uplifting read. 

How did The Tale of One Bad Rat come about and what was the motivation? Was it simply a good story, an issue you felt strongly about, or was it a conscious effort to push the envelope of what a GN could do?

I never set out to write a book about child abuse. It came out of a desire to do a graphic novel using the Lake District as a setting. I know the place very well, and partly grew up there. It was in my mind for several years and I began to read books on the area and its history. I researched the Lake District poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge but a graphic novel idea never crystallised.

While visiting Beatrix Potter's house, Hill Top, the thought struck me that here was a woman who told stories using a mixture of words and pictures, a direct correlation with comics. So, I started to research Potter. I'd never read her books when young and started by reading her complete oeuvre, then books about her. I must have read about 13 biographies before I realised that her life wouldn't make a very interesting basis for a graphic novel. If you saw the movie Miss Potter, you'll understand what I mean. They only managed to make that vaguely interesting by inventing events and simply making things up.

Shattering the silence... The sublime landscapes of the Lake District feature
prominently in Bryan Talbot's ground-breaking GN, The Tale of One Bad Rat
 (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)

So, I'd reached another dead end. Then, one day I saw a teenage girl begging on a platform in London's Tottenham Court Road Tube station. She was being hassled by a huge, bearded Jesus freak, who was trying to persuade her to go with him to a hostel or somewhere. She looked so embarrassed. Thinking about her later, she brought to mind descriptions of Beatrix Potter who, at age 16, was said to be "painfully shy." As you know, that became the first scene in the book and I grew the story from there.

Can you talk us through a bit of how this process of 'growing' that story went?

I thought, "What if this girl has a psychic or synchronistic connection with Beatrix Potter and she follows Potter's footsteps to the Lake District?' As I plotted it, I asked myself why she left home. "Because her father was abusing her," was the reply. It was as glib as that. It's a fact that many kids do run away to escape abuse and many end up in London. Personally, I knew nothing of the subject, so I began to research it, buying books and visiting the library. What was amazing was the number of people who came forward, from friends I've known for years to people I met at conventions, to talk to me about the abuse they'd suffered as soon as they discovered I was researching it. It quickly dawned on me that it was far too important to marginalise, to simply have as a reason for her to leave home. It needed to be what the book was all about.

Just one page from the meticulously designed dynamic layouts
that pepper the hugely entertaining Grandville graphic novels...
 (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)
Please tell us about the anthropomorphised characters in Grandville – I had first assumed they were under the influence of Wind in the Willows, perhaps the work of Beatrix Potter… but then I made the connection with Parisian cartoonist J.J Grandville. I am wondering what creative path led you to the characters for Grandville and why they have held your attention for so long…

My graphic novels are usually the result of years of consideration, some taking longer than others. I think, research and make notes, slowly developing the concept until I’m happy with it. The first volume of Grandville was the complete opposite. Directly after finishing Alice in Sunderland, I was tidying away the pile of reference books I’d been using and picked up a book I’d had for decades. It was a book about JJ Granville, the pen name of Jean Ignace Isadore GĂ©rard, who was a big influence on John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books.

As you know, his brilliant cartoons, satirising French social mores, fashions and attitudes, used animals to convey character. I had a sudden flash of inspiration: “Grandville” could be the nickname for Paris in a story set in an alternative reality populated by anthropomorphic characters in which Paris is the biggest city in the world.

I’m a big fan of crime fiction and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. The idea to write a detective story, in a Belle Epoque steampunk fantasy setting, really grabbed my imagination. Also, I’d never done an anthropomorphic comic before, so jumped at the challenge.

How do you approach such an ambitious undertaking?

With this book, after spending a week thinking about it, while working on the artwork for my experimental graphic novel Metronome, I scribbled down the plot in ten minutes and typed the whole script over the next five or six days. The characters arrived fully-formed and even delivered their own lines. It was like taking dictation. For all my previous comics, I made meticulous thumbnail sketches of each page before starting the scripts. This time, I didn’t need them, as I could vividly visualise each page, something I’ve done ever since. Creating a graphic novel is a very long slog, and anything that can save time is a bonus.

Animal action and crime capers in Bryan Talbot's Grandville
 (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)
Some of your graphic novels are huge undertakings – how do you go about planning something with the scope and breadth of Alice in Sunderland, for example, which is so rich in facts and history? 

I spend a lot of time on the structure, which has to be rock-solid before I type a single word. The first Grandville was an exception. I know that many prose writers, such as Stephen King or Ian Rankin, create as they write, the story growing out the initial concept, developing it as they go along. You can’t really do that with a comic. You can’t get half way through drawing a graphic novel, then suddenly realise that, to take a silly example, your protagonist should have been two feet taller and you have to re-draw eight month’s worth of work.

Even after spending two or three years researching Alice in Sunderland and making copious notes, I still had to spend six weeks working full-time on the plot structure, going through draft after draft until it was as perfect as I could get it. With this 320-page book that used dream logic and what had to seem, on the surface, to be stream of consciousness storytelling, a solid structure was vitally important.

Alice in Sunderland: the inventiveness and diversity
of Bryan Talbot's visual storytelling is showcased in
this hugely ambitious cross-cultural history-spanning
'biography' of this typically remarkable Northern city.

Writers often talk about differences between approaching short-form fiction and the novel – do you have such distinction based on the length of a work?

I don’t tend to write short strips but, when I do, the process is no different.

 You are an all-round comics creator, how do your ideas generally develop – through sketches and drawings, through prose, through story... Which came first the word or the image?

They come at the same time. It’s not as if I’m writing a script and then I have to imagine how to stage and draw it.

Alice in SunderlandThe Tale of One Bad Rat with its runaway from the North, in London… Do you think being ‘a northerner’ has influenced your outlook in any way?

I don’t really know. I know I have a low tolerance for pretension, but that’s probably due to coming from a working-class background, rather than being Northern. I did make my early characters Northern, such as Chester P Hackenbush and Frank Fazakerly.

Do you have a creative ritual or regimen?

I get up around 9 a.m, start working around 10 and work till 9 p.m, with a break for lunch and another for a brisk four-mile walk, seven days a week. My creative process, which you can probably imagine from my description of how the last two books came about, all depends upon what stage I’m at in the development of a book – whether working on ideas, writing, pencilling, inking or colouring.

Can you describe the place where you do most of your creative work, outside of your own head, that is?

If you mean my studio, it’s in a large ground floor room with a bay window. There are lots of bookshelves, books in piles on the floor, a plan chest full of artwork, a drawing board, a computer area with 2 Macs, printer scanner and Wacom tablet, a large Victorian roll-top desk and a big aspidistra. The place is cluttered with a variety of junk that I’ve often used as props.

What can you see from there?

If I’m at the drawing board, in the bay, I can look out onto our front garden: trees, lawn, flowers. Mary’s a keen gardener. I enjoy watching the birds that we put food out for and have a bird identification book handy.

Do you have a favourite treat or tipple?

Wine. As a treat, I do enjoy a full English fry-up once every month or two. Usually we eat very healthily!

You regularly collaborate with other artists and writers – which is very usual for comics creators. But you also are an auteur – writing, drawing, colouring, as a solo venture, and more recently you have been collaborating closely with Mary Talbot. 

The graphic memoir of  Mary Talbot draws on parallels
between her troubled relationship with her own father, a James Joyce scholar,
and Joyce with his daughter Lucia... Winner of the 2012 Costa Biography Award.
Can you tell us a little bit about your motivations, both for working alone and for working with others and how that process generally works out creatively?

I always prefer to draw my own stories. It’s satisfying and also easier, as I know exactly what the writer intends! Though, I must say, as a writer, I’m often a complete bastard to myself as artist, giving myself scenes that I know will look good, but that will be hell to draw. Crowd scenes, for example. They take ages. Commercial comics are a production line, with an editor who commissions a writer, gives the script to a penciller, who’s then inked, coloured and lettered by different people. There is often zero collaboration between the writer and artists, apart from any script instructions.

The books I draw for Mary work very differently and the collaboration is extremely close. We discuss the books as she’s researching and writing them. We both have input on all aspects. I recommend script and plot changes and sometimes even supply extra dialogue, and Mary comments on the art as I’m working on it.

You have been involved in British comics for some time - articles often refer to you as a 'veteran' or the 'father' of the British GN... How has the scene changed? It seems to have gained respect during your tenure, and your contribution to this shift in perception has been recognised by numerous accolades including your honorary doctorates and the recent Royal Society of Literature Fellowship...

The big change has been the decline in sales of monthly and weekly comics, and the dramatic rise, in the number, range and quality of graphic novels. Also the rapid growth in the percentage of women creators, which has shot from hardly any about 40 years ago to what I now guess is 50%. Graphic novels are no longer confined to the specialist comic store niche market and are now sold in regular bookshops and every respectable literature festival now has a sizable graphic novel component.

When did you ‘wake up’ to being a writer/creator?

I’ve been writing and drawing my own comics since I was eight.

Casting your mind back, what was the first book you can remember that really grabbed you, immersed you in its world and carried you off?

The Rupert the Bear annuals, when I was five.

…and did they scare and 'scar you for life' as they did Ramsey Campbell?

Not at all. I know the story he means, he told me all about it once!

For me, it was an escape from the grimy, smoky Wigan of the 1950s where I grew up, the idyllic country setting and fantastic adventures... probably why I fell in love with the Lake District when my folks bought a caravan there and we started going up every chance we had.

In my research I came across a mention that you had done some concept art for a screen adaptation of a story by Campbell?

Yes, coincidentally enough, that was set in the Lakes. It was only a short film, about 30 minutes long I seem to remember, directed by Jon Sorenson, a cinematographer who’d worked on Bladerunner, among other things. I don’t think it was ever shown on TV.

Do you have an all-time favourite book or one that you regularly return to?

I’ve had books like that, but they changed over the years as my tastes have developed. I do find myself going back to Aldous Huxley once every few years.

What’s out there right now that you would recommend?

Hannah Berry’s Livestock.  Salman Rushdie’s Shame... it’s been out for many years, but I only read it recently.

I would expect there has been some interest in screen adaptations of your work, I mean a Graphic Novel is practically a storyboard already...

I’ve sold the film option on Luther Arkwright a few times, but nothing’s ever come of it. At the moment, Euston Films is trying to get a TV series based on Grandville off the ground, ditto with a small UK production company and Bad Rat. I’ve been here before, though, and am not holding my breath. These things more at a glacial pace and often fall through.

What is coming up from Bryan Talbot that we should look out for?

I’m currently drawing Mary’s fourth graphic novel, Rain.

Thank you, Bryan Talbot!


Bryan Talbot was talking with Remy Dean

if you enjoyed reading this interview, you can... 

for more information, news and updates: 

of particular interest, and well worth spending some time with, are
The Grandville Annotations
in which Bryan Talbot is very generous with information about
the influences and ideas behind the epic story and artwork 
- it is like a director's commentary you may come across on a
collectors' edition DVD for a classic film, only free and online!

and follow his approved fan-page twitter

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