British Comics Month – Bryan Talbot speaks

Published On July 26, 2006 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Interviews

Alternate realities, heroes as likely to indulge in sex and drugs as save the world, Beatrix Potter, child abuse, rabbit holes, Sunderland, Lewis Carroll, the ghost of Sid James and more. Oh yes, my chums, today we have someone quite remarkable talking to us for British Comics Month…

FPI: Today we’re fortunate enough to be talking to a comics creator who features on many people’s top ten lists with almost embarrassing regularity, Bryan Talbot. Bryan, thank you for joining us. Over the years you have worked with a host of big names and a huge range of titles, from 2000AD to DC comics, but you originally began with the late 60s and early 70s underground scene in the UK. Could you tell us a bit about how you initially started out then?

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BT: Growing up, I’d draw a lot of comics for my own amusement but it never occurred to me that I could make a living doing them. When I was unemployed after finishing the graphic design course I did at college, I decided to draw what became the first Brainstorm story. I’d already done a page or two and had met Lee Harris who ran the head shop Alchemy in London’s Portobello Road who said that he’d publish an underground comic if I ever drew one. To me, at the time, being an underground comic artist was the next coolest thing to playing lead guitar in a rock band. He published the first one and told me to get on with the next issue and I ended up doing underground and alternative comics for the next five years.

FPI: Were there any comics creators then who were particularly influential on you?

BT: At the time, Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and many other American UG artists. From the mainstream, Jack Kirby, Steranko, Jim Starlin, Barry Smith and, by 1976 when Metal Hurlant first started, Moebius.

FPI: In those days getting distributed was a little less easy than getting listed by Diamond wasn’t it? It was mostly head shops and the beginnings of the direct comics market all the way through until about 1980. There were even mobile ‘distributors’ like Planet Wheels doing the rounds of festivals etc. Despite this we’ve heard that issues of Brainstorm and the like were selling up to 12,000, which would still be considered very decent sales today. What do you feel has been gained or lost in the way comics reach their audience now? Do you think it has made the material more conservative just by the fact it is now distributed through large rather than small companies?

BT: To be distributed nationally in corner shops and newsagents you need to be distributed by WHSmiths, who’ve always loathed comics so, yes, this rules out anything different. In the 70s there were still distributors like Moore Harness who specialised in T & A mags but would take almost anything. That’s how Brainstorm ended up not just in headshops but in newsagents all over the country.

FPI: You must have seen quite a few changes over your time in the business. Do you think things have become better for comics creators today? What do you think of the current UK comics scene? Are there any UK creators out there who take your fancy at the moment?

BT: The big difference in the scene now is the rise of the graphic novel, with bookstores and libraries having dedicated GN sections. This must be better for creators though it’s counterbalanced by the decline of the weekly comic market. Apart from the small press, the UK industry is pretty pathetic with the obvious exception of the Rebellion guys who are still flying the flag of creativity. 2000AD and the Megazine publish some great young artists.

On the small press side, I only recently discovered Roger Langridge and his originally self-published Fred the Clown comics, which are awesome. Metaphrog (one of my favourite UK small presses too – Joe) are also producing some great work.

FPI: A number of the best writers and artists in the business today came through 2000AD and you were involved yourself in a number of strips, from Future Shocks (I still love the Wages of Sin supervillain school strip) to Judge Dredd. Was 2000AD a very important space for British comics talent then? Do you still work with any of your collaborators from that period?


BT:
Nope. I have a chance to chat with many of them at cons and recently visited Alan Grant in his amazing gothic mansion in Scotland but haven’t worked with them since. I do prefer to write my own books. 2000AD was extremely important then, selling 120,000 copies a week and breaking new ground in content and artwork, which is why most of the creators were head-hunted by the American publishers. I mainly worked on Nemesis the Warlock, written by Pat Mills, doing over three books in the series which are scheduled to be reprinted soon by Rebellion.


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FPI: Although you have covered a diverse range of comics you will forever be known for The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, which Warren Ellis described as the most influential graphic novel to come out of Britain. Yet someone today picking up the collected edition may not realise that this story took years to complete – could you tell us something of how Luther came into being and the efforts you had to put in over those years to complete it?

BT: It was originally serialised in the alternative comic Near Myths, the predecessor to Warrior, the Pssst!, the predecessor to Escape and Deadline and the first collected volume was published in 1982. Begun in 1978, this makes it the first British graphic novel. I then worked for 2000AD for five years, so had to put it on hold. Then Pssst! publisher Serge Boissevain paid me to complete the story and issued it in a further two volumes in 1987 and 1989.

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 also a reaction against the bland state of mainstream superhero comics of the time; Arkwright had sex, drugs, swore, vomited etc. – sounds inane now but, back in the day, these were shocking things to see in comics. I thought “mainstream text novels and movies contain all this stuff – why not comicbooks?”

On the story level I also wanted to get away from the mainstream formulaic 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.

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FPI: Interest in Luther seems, like the eponymous character himself, unwilling to die and stay down. As well as your sequel, Heart of Empire, one of the best British fantasy novels of last year, Hal Duncan’s Vellum, referenced both Luther and Moorcock, while Big Finish produced a spiffing full-cast audio adaptation with new Doctor David Tennant as Luther. I presume it must be pretty rewarding to see your work continuing to be so important to people – are you likely to ever return to Luther’s multiverses? What can you tell us about the proposed movie version?

BT: Didn’t know about Vellum. I know Arkwright had a big influence on the Italian steampunk scene and I’m mentioned in an Italian SF novel as the Divine Talbot, or somesuch!

Yes, I’ve been slowly working on what will probably be the final Arkwright story but there are a couple of books that I’d like to do first (including a new steampunk story). As you know, the partnership between small Australian production company Koukou, who’s had the option for the last three years and the Hollywood big guys Benderspink (A History of Violence, The Ring, American Pie etc) to produce the movie has just been announced but this is just the first tiny step on a journey of a thousand miles, so we’ll have to see. Koukou have been consulting me on the script and want me to be involved on the production design side, so I hope that I can keep some influence in there.

FPI: In the mid 90s you published the Tale of One Bad Rat, which tackled some very heavy-duty subjects such as child abuse and homelessness. While these subjects obviously offer some serious dramatic potential for storytellers would it be fair to say that you also wanted to say something about them, bring them a bit more into public consciousness and make people think?

BT: I really just wanted to tell a good story but that has been an effect, yes. Twelve years ago, when Bad Rat first came out, there was very little in any media that concerned child abuse, especially when you consider that it happens much more frequently than murder but we see dozens of murders every night in TV dramas. Child abuse happened in a conspiracy of silence. The kids who suffered it don’t think that anyone would believe them as they didn’t hear about it anywhere else, so kept quiet. I think this has changed a lot now, but it’s so important to keep it there in fiction.

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FPI: How did you find the reaction to One Bad Rat? You didn’t receive threatening letters from outraged Beatrix Potter fans, did you?


BT:
On the contrary: it went down very well with the Beatrix Potter Society and is even referred to in the book Beatrix Potter, Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. Judy Taylor, then Chair of the society and probably the world’s leading expert on Potter even defended the book when a newspaper tried to stir up a shock horror story about the fact that the book uses the names of Potter characters – you know: Peter Rabbit is a crack addict! Lucinda is a prostitute! Judy even gave me a quote that we used on the back cover.

FPI: I remember reading One Bad Rat when it first came out and found it powerful and astonishing. Despite the grim reality of Helen’s situation I thought the dream of her Beatrix Potter books offered a beacon of light, that part of her innocence was still intact despite all that had happened. Was it important to you to inject the story with a sense of hope?

BT: Absolutely. Andrew Vachss thought that the ending should have been pessimistic and bleak, as are his own stories. His point was that abuse destroys lives and that this should be firmly impressed on the reader. It’s a good and constructive point. However, since receiving lots of letters from survivors who’ve endorsed the ending, some saying that it gives them hope or that they’ve been through it and out the other side and it confirms their experience, or it cheers them up when they’re down, I’m convinced it was the right one for the book.

Also, Bad Rat is being used in several abuse centres in the UK and America and elsewhere to get kids talking about their own problems. I’m sure it wouldn’t be if it had a depressing message. A downbeat ending belongs to a different sort of story. I would have worked the whole story very differently for that sort of ending. Andrew was good enough to give Dark Horse a quote for the book’s promotion, though.

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FPI: I was very excited to hear about your current project, Alice in Sunderland, which is due out next year from Jonathan Cape. I know that the starting point is the works of Lewis Carroll (one of my favourite authors), but could you tease us with a little glimpse of what we can expect? Is it correct that the book is made up of multiple stories rather than one central narrative? Is that one of the reasons why you’ve opted for a variety of different artistic approaches?

BT: Yes. The framework is a performance in the Sunderland Empire – an Edwardian “palace of varieties” – so it’s something of a variety performance. It even has an interval in the middle and an encore, leading to a big theatrical finale. Sid James died on stage at the Empire and supposedly haunts the place, so I made his ghost a character who pops up now and again through the book. As the book progresses, the seemingly disparate threads begin to intertwine and the links become clear. It’s all about history, myth and storytelling and the story of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell is featured throughout the book, coded in sepia watercolours.

The longest story is that of the Lambton Worm, Britain’s most unique and fully-formed dragon legend, which is set at Worm Hill in Sunderland. This story was the inspiration for, among other things, Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm, Jeff Smith’s Rose and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, of which I do a three page comic adaptation in the style of John Tenniel. It’s the most famous nonsense poem in the English language and was written in Whitburn on Sunderland’s northern boundary.

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FPI:
I read on Down the Tubes that the great Leo Baxendale, creator of the immortal Bash Street Kids among many others, has contributed some work to Alice. I presume you must be pretty damned chuffed with that – how did that come about?

BT:
Damned chuffed. I’m a huge fan and it’ll be his first comic work for fifteen years. Leo’s now an old friend who I first met in Preston when he turned up for an exhibition I had at the Harris Museum there. He’s originally from Preston and he used to stop at my house when he was there visiting his mother. The Preston Speculative Fiction Group even hosted the official Bash Street 40th anniversary party. Intrigued, Leo asked to read the Alice script and spontaneously produced a one page script inspired by it. He doesn’t draw anymore, so I’ve drawn it in a style somewhere between his and mine, as we both appear as characters.

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FPI:
It is interesting that it is a book publisher rather than a comics company who are publishing Alice in Sunderland for the UK. Do you think that this and the growing number of mainstream publishers now issuing graphic novels to both comics stores and traditional bookstores is a sign that the medium is slowly becoming more respected in the way it is in Europe? Do you think that this new wider interest in graphic novels and comics is likely to be more long-lived than the boom of the mid 80s and early 90s?

BT: I do hope it is becoming more like Europe and I do think that it will be long-lived. According to Barnes and Noble it’s the fastest growing area of book sales in the last hundred years. The 80s boom was simply unsustainable. Comics were suddenly cool but there just wasn’t enough quality material available to maintain the level of interest. New readers, expecting to get another Watchmen would pick up six issues of Spiderman slapped together and offered up as a “graphic novel” and have all their old prejudices against comics reconfirmed. Now there’s a huge range of better and more diverse graphic novels – enough to sustain the growing market.

FPI: Aside from the major project of Alice in Sunderland can I ask what else is in the works from you? I heard that you were involved with helping promote the work of Veronique Tanaka with her graphic poem Metronome.

BT: It’s actually much more like music than a poem. It has a rhythm, a constant beat, and visual themes that are repeated, like phrases in a musical piece. It’s very hypnotic. It’s a sixty-four page “silent” comic and it occurred to me that it would work just as well as an animation – one comic frame to one animation frame, one second each – so I’m slowly compiling it like that and will make it available as a Flash animation on the internet.

Veronique’s quite intriguing and I really don’t know her that well but still, she asked me to represent her. She’s half French, half Japanese and quite shy. Apparently she doesn’t even attend her own exhibition openings. Veronique Tanaka isn’t her real name either – apparently her Wikipedia entry was deleted because they, unsurprisingly, couldn’t confirm her existence! She approached me at Angouleme last January while I was signing and arranged for us to meet up afterwards in a restaurant where she showed me the first few Metronome pages.

Being a fine artist, she knows absolutely nothing about the comic industry as such, though she grew up reading manga and bande dessinnée. She approached me because she’s a big fan of the French edition of Bad Rat and even said that it had influenced her line work. I said I’d be happy to try and get her a publisher and heard nothing more from her until she mailed me the finished artwork on disc, all created on computer.

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It’s quite a startling comic, very experimental and in a clear line technique – a non-linear, erotically charged story that slowly builds in the mind. I’m currently sending it to publishers and having extremely favourable responses, so I think it will just be a matter of choosing the best one.

FPI: Let’s hope so, I’m rather intrigued now and would love to read it myself. Now, a question I’ve been asking several folks on here recently – if you had to recommend some titles to a new reader who wants to pick up a few comics but doesn’t know where to start, who would you recommend?

BT: A new reader? How about Bone? Very accessible and has flowing storytelling, something essential if the reader doesn’t have that acquired knowledge of comic grammar gained by reading comics for years. If they want something “serious”, Joe Sacco’s work or Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Fred the Clown for humour. For superhero comics, Alan Moore’s ABC stuff. Nothing that requires a detailed knowledge of the last thirty years of continuity!

FPI: Bryan Talbot, thank you very much for talking to us.

BT: My pleasure.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.