Friday, 21 June 2019

High Hopes for the Hopeless - an interview with Tom Brown


Where and what is Hopeless, Maine

So far, it has manifested as a webcomic, a paperback and interactive weblog, before becoming a series of luscious graphic novels and is still growing, currently in the process of being developed as a roleplaying game, a tarot deck, a cuddly ‘spoonwalker’… It has become a many-tentacled beautiful beast and grown into forms that creators Tom and Nimue Brown had not envisaged when they first created the island as a refuge in imagination and settled there to live... 


Tom and Nimue Brown in the middle of Hopeless, Maine

Comic creator, Tom Brown kindly gives Remy Dean a guided tour of the island and chats about steampunk, demons, poetry and pictures. 

Welcome to Hopeless, Maine.

REMY: I know you have been asked this before, but here at Scrawl we are interested in process, so how does the creative collaboration between you and Nimue generally work out? 

TOM: “Well, there’s perhaps less ‘generally’ for us than there is for most for a start. We started out on opposite sides of the Atlantic which put some restrictions on how we could work together. At that point it was Nimue doing the writing and me doing the art, pretty much across the board.

“We would have ‘What if?’ and ‘What even is this?’ conversations a lot. Now, as we work at the same table, things have evolved - and continue to change. Nimue now hand-colours the pages, and though the script for the series has been written for years, we still tinker with each volume as we work on it, and there is the question of what do we do with the chapter covers and two page spreads. They’re always present and used to tell another story, augmenting or filling-in detail to provide information that is not in the scripted pages.

“It's back and forth, really, and though the script is already written, things evolve. For example, I needed some eye candy for a background on a two-page spread, and I drew a giant decaying Victorian industrial site. We then wondered what this was, and how it fit into the history of the island. Nimue ‘discovered’ that this was the abandoned Great Oceanic Gnii refinery.”

OK, for the uninitiated, can you explain what Gnii are?

“Gnii are tentacled creatures native to the island. They lash themselves to bits of stone, often gravestone, and put a lit candle on top to fill their gossamer balloon and float in the skies over the island. Great Oceanic Gnii are their behemoth cousins which no longer visit the island as they have no wish to be pressed for their oil!”

Sometimes, there is a lot going on, visually, in the backgrounds… Do words disappear from the script as the pictures take over telling the stories, so you find you can then strip back the text? 

“Not often, no. Nimue has a very tight writing style and usually the only things edited out of the script are scenes - which though lovely - are not necessary to the plot, or don't move things forward.

“Nimue's original scripts are like scripts for a radio play with little setting information in them, as she relied on me mostly at that point, for the visual ideas. Now that we’re working together in the same place, we sit down and work out the thumbnail drawings for the pages and figure out settings and visual details as we go.”

Hopeless, Maine Book Two: Sinners

Many writers use visual stimulus to spark story ideas - are there images that come to you, including those from within imagination, that then just have to be worked into the story? 

“Yes! Easiest example of that - aside from the time that I did the cover before Nimue had even started the script. Erm... is coming to the UK and seeing teasels for the first time. It became obvious that they belonged on the island, where they became teaselheads... Buildings, landscapes, people, graveyards, that we find interesting or moving usually end up getting into the story, in one way or another.”

The dialogue has a really lovely, sparse rhythm to it and unlike many comics, the characters seem to establish their own distinct voices very quickly. Do you act out the speech and develop the characters in a kind of roleplay ‘rehearsal’ or are they lifted from other sources, like real people or favourite characters in TV shows?

“The truth is that these are people who live in our heads, and Nimue just ‘hears’ them and writes it down. The sparse rhythm may be partly explained by Nimue's interest in flash fiction. She also studies people and thinks a lot about language-use and… pretty much everything. In this way, she’s really working all of the time. Even when asleep!

Is there a typical ‘routine’ to writing days?

“The short answer is, no. We are easily bored creatures and are constantly finding new ways of working.”

Where do you generally write and draw?

“All of the actual ‘work’ happens here, in the flat.”

Do you go on research visits, or do you ever seek out certain environments in which to write?

“We walk for pleasure, and transport, and we frequently do long walks on weekends - 12 to 20 miles… This gives us plenty of input and inspiration, as well as a chance to discuss things as they come up.”

How was the narrow-boat as a studio?

“Bloody awful!

“It was damp, there was no reliable internet, electricity had to come from wind, solar, or running the engine - which I had to do while scanning pages - the boat moved constantly and violently when a large plastic boat came by. I was using watercolours at that point, because computer colouring used too much electricity. When the boat was shoved about, the brush would slip and I would mutter ‘alright, those can be crows, then’.”

OK, so why Maine? 

“Much of the inspiration for the setting comes from my growing up and spending most of my life in Maine, and I have stored up enough from that to keep me going for some time.

“I absorbed the folklore, history, landscape and sense of the place on a deep level, consciously and unconsciously. There is a sort of literary tradition of strange tales set in New England and that was the water that I wanted to swim in.

“I spent much of my life walking the woods, coast and graveyards of Maine - and decorated my home with gravestone rubbings. The setting is really a central character in Hopeless, Maine. Nimue came to visit me there before I moved to marry her, and she was able to see some of the charm and strangeness of the place.”

Artwork for the forthcoming Hopeless Maine Role-playing Game,
the pencils and coloured stages of production... click image for more info

You get the H P Lovecraft comparison quite a bit, which I see as a good thing, but I’m feeling resonances with other media too – and you have name-dropped Clive Barker. You are now dabbling in transmedia storytelling with some music and purely prose stories on the way. Who have been your favourite creatives and what have you learnt from them? 

“I'm glad you mention the music crossover. One of our early fellow travellers has been Walter Sickert and The Army of Broken Toys - one of our favourite bands of all time-ever! I feel that we have sort of evolved together from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Walter has even written and recorded a Hopeless, Maine song - which will have to be part of the soundtrack if there is ever any sort of film treatment of the story. Walter has also done a drawing of Sal which appeared in The Gathering. We take a lot of inspiration from them! Also, Barry Dodd's crew who produced Maine-set web-series Ragged Isle. Which has been compared to Twin Peaks.

“There has been a fair amount of creative DNA swapping between us and mutual support.

“Hiyao Miyazaki has had a serious impact on us. Also, the folklore of the UK, and folk music in general are very much part of Nimue's creative life - and mine. Finding the Steampunk community has certainly influenced us in all sorts of ways and given us another place where we can be ourselves in community. I could make a nearly endless list of other comics and other sorts of creators we admire. Edward Gorey is probably a grandfather of tradition for us.”

To me it doesn’t seem a far cry from the Little House on the Prairie books – bear with me here – I’m thinking the historical backdrop, and the darker side of things… Their little homestead is beset with troubles and disasters, plagues of locusts, diseases that leave lasting damage… and similarly, it seems there is a sort of real historical backdrop to Hopeless that places it within a sort of American idea of the past.

“Absolutely. I have already mentioned my immersion in New England history and culture, and Nimue has read and studied Hawthorne. I wanted to do some sort of thing in that tradition, but updated. Also, as way of looking at human experience in general.

“Immersion for me, and reading victorian literature for Nimue. We do go poking around into New England folklore still from time to time, just because it's fascinating stuff!”

Welcome to... Hopeless, Maine

So, how have your interests in folklore and magic fed into the stories – do you strive to be true to the research, or is it all simply made up? I think I spotted allusions to witch-bottles and witch-balls? But what of the ‘creatures’ and ‘demons’?

“Well, we are both Druids, and so, have a wealth of information to borrow from. We have a lot of Wiccan friends and Nimue works for a Pagan publishing house. No shortage of magical thought in our environment! The creatures and demons are largely made up but are the sort of things that we think would be out there in this setting. The sort of things you might see out of the corner of your eye, if you will.

“Well spotted on the witch balls! I'm just strangely fascinated by bottles for no readily apparent reason."

Do you have a Hopeless Maine bible?

“No. Though as there is now a Hopeless, Maine RPG, Travels in Hopeless by Keith Healing. There has been some discussion of whether or not there might need to be something along those lines in the future. This also gives me a chance to talk about the fact that we have opened up the island to other creatives and have a growing creative tribe.

“On our website, the Hopeless, Vendetta, there are regular columns, art and all manner of offerings from people who have come to play in our rather strange playground. Nimue's father Martin Pearson brings us regular Tales from the Squid and Teapot – the Hopeless, Maine “local”, and another series of tales by Keith Errington is soon to be collected into an illustrated prose book that will, hopefully, be the first in a series of such things.

“There have been stories on the Vendetta which have been inspired by other tales and inventions by other authors on the site, to the point where some of them contain only things that we had no hand in whatsoever!”

Dead dogs don't die...

How did the visual style come about – is this just what looks cool to you, or is there a conscious Dark Kawaii approach?

“I had already drawn all of the first book of Hopeless, Maine, and then I discovered Manga. I knew I needed some of that style in the visual mix. Face stylisation especially, but other elements as well. It was a very conscious decision. Also, Blade of The Immortal was a revelation because it showed that finished comics work could be in pencil.

“Otherwise, I just sort of wander off on my own, or rather now, we wander on our own, as Nimue has become part of the art team and hand-colours all of the pages and has an equal – at least – part in the visual storytelling decisions. I see new things literally every day that influence current and future art for Hopeless, Maine.”

I’m a hardcore horror aficionado, an old goth, and it really appealed to me, but my 14-year-old daughter also enjoyed the comics – her other favourite comic universe being My Little Pony… Who do you think of as your typical reader whilst you are creating?

“People, and others - we like to be inclusive!

“We're mostly making the sort of thing we would want to read. I think it's dangerous to imagine an audience too clearly. You may end up doing some sort of box-ticker that has no real life of its own that way. We do think of some of our friends while doing certain scenes and put in things that we think will please them, but only if it's fun.”

I feel that the poetic often lies outside words, and I have often found truly poetic moments in films and in music that do not have any dialogue or lyric – but I maintain they derive from a form of writing. In Hopeless Maine, there are definitely poetic moments, but I feel they are not solely in the images or the words… do you know what I’m talking about? I’m on a quest to explore what ‘the poetic’ is and would like to hear any thoughts you have on this.

“What an utterly gorgeous comment-question! That is pretty much exactly what we are setting out to achieve. Poetry, is, among other things, a way of getting across something that is more than is, or can be, contained in words. The whole being so much more than the sum of its parts, a distillation of life, dreams, and experience. We are very interested in the numinous, it's the well that we draw from, and if some of that comes though, that is serious success for us.”

Hopeless Maine Book Three: Victims

Volume 3, Victims is imminent, so without giving too much away, what else can we expect to come out of Hopeless Maine in the near future? Such as those transmedia spin-offs…

“The Hopeless, Maine RPG is now in print. We may do a kickstarter for a deluxe edition this year. The series of illustrated prose, I mentioned above, including two Novellas from Nimue, a Tarot deck is nearly complete. I'm the bottleneck here. Apologies to Laura Perry who has created something really amazing and so very much in the spirit of the setting.

“Our next Small Strange Book For People - tiny books which can be sent as cards if people desire, will be “How To Find Hopeless, Maine” by Meredith Debonnaire, which I will decorate with singing snails and similar strangeness.

“We are hoping that the Hopeless, Maine music scene will continue to grow. It is very likely that there will be a HM themed album from Madeline Harwood next year, which will join Utterly Hopeless by Johnny Benson, the Hopeless, Maine song from Walter Sickert and The Army of Broken Toys and the Hopeless, Maine track Professor Elemental wrote and performed. It's on his Nervous EP. The Role Play game continues to grow with scenarios and other extra tentacles. I'm sure there will be more than this. We seem to be in rather a fertile period, just now."

Thank you, Tom Brown, for your time and a lovely chat! 
Hopeless, Manie is my kinda place...

“Thank you! This has been rather a lot of fun!”

Tom Brown was talking to Remy Dean

Hopeless Maine is published by Sloth Comics

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