Talking Sam and John – a chat with Darryl Cunningham
FPI: Well here we are, more than a year since we posted the very first Super-Sam and John-of-the-Night on the FPI blog and who would have thought this is how it would have ended (see last week’s shocking finale)? Darryl, when it first started Super- Sam was, for the most part, stand-alone weekly pages and primarily gag driven, something a lot of us really enjoyed, but it developed hugely and (to me at least) in unexpected directions as it progressed. The obvious question to ask you is did you have any idea it would grow this way when you were starting out or was it a sort of organic evolution, ideas slowly building as the series progressed in that way that an idea sometimes sparks several more?
Darryl: I wasn’t very far into the strip when I began to think “who are these people and what kind of world do they live in?” I thought it would be fun to throw in mystery elements, like the recurring graffiti and John’s grandfather. I had no clue when I started placing these elements what exactly they were or how it would all pan out. But I was confident enough in my own ability to I know I would eventually make sense of it.
FPI: Oh yes, the graffiti, I remember that starting to creep in, that was one of the early hints at something larger unfolding in the background and promising to come more centre stage further down the line, it was a nice touch.
Darryl: I also wanted to a few things with the hero/action genre that I’ve had in my mind for years. Most of these kind of stories are so predictable. The recurring structure of the hero story, whether it be Superman, James Bond, Indiana Jones, or whoever, is that the hero gets into danger, faces imminent death and then survives through strength or intelligence.
Often what is presented is really weak. I wanted to write a series of dangers that looked impossible to survive, yet then go on to write a way out that is logical and satisfying (if slightly absurd). I particularly wanted to write my own version of the Defusing a Bomb scene. There’s been plenty of TV shows and films over the years which have had the hero in a situation where he, she, or they, have but a short time to defuse a bomb.
These scenes, by their very nature, don’t have any real tension, because any audience knows full well that the bomb is not going to go off and kill the hero. But what if it did?
FPI: Is there a point where you felt that you really wanted to develop a longer, ongoing story-arc or did it just happen? I mean was it deliberate to plot it in advance out or did you find yourself drawing an episode which needed several pages to complete and from there it grew into something much larger? You had, after all, created some smaller multi-part stories during the strip’s run, but the final act (for want of a better term) was a far longer and more involved piece than anything which preceded it.
Darryl: It all grew in the telling. I soon became dissatisfied with the one page gag mode and wanted to delve deeper into themes which were important to me. Evil people rarely think that they’re actually evil. Hitler didn’t wake up every morning and think, “I am evil.” The people who flew planes into the twin towers thought they were striking against evil. Logic is twisted on that side of the mirror. So I created villains who genuinely thought they were doing good and had become blind to the consequences.
FPI: I got the distinct impression that you were more content with an ongoing story arc – did you find it more satisfying?
Darryl: Gag strips are really hard. I admire people who can do it well, because it ain’t easy to have to start from scratch with a new idea every time. A narrative makes writing so much easier, because events will suggest yet further events, and so on.
FPI: Its odd too as comedy writing – in any medium – tends to be looked down on compared to drama and yet it is indeed even harder, I think, to do well and frequently.
For my part I found that the longer stories, as well as offering more of a hook to the reader to follow it to its conclusion, also allowed the main characters to grow a lot more. Sam especially – he begins very much as a pompous person who often gets his comeuppance through his own foolish actions (almost a buffoon at times), but by the final act he had grown into a hero (risking possible death to avoid nuclear catastrophe) and finally a tragic hero. Did you want to push the characters that way or was it more of a case of the story presenting itself to you and you realising that it would inevitably means the characters growing in response to the plot events?
(the very first episode of Super-Sam and John-of-the-Night, by and (c) Darryl Cunningham)
Darryl: This was my aim from the beginning. Sam made me think of the Cary Grant character in North By Northwest. Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill starts the movie as rather a superficial man, but by the end of the film, his experience as a reluctant hero have forged within him real depth. Sam changes, and these changes are reflected in his stripping away of first, his absurd wig, and then later his mask and cape. By the end of the story his vanity (his only real weakness) had gone.
FPI: John grew as well, in a quieter way than Sam perhaps (which is appropriate to John’s character really), developing a bit of an almost mystic edge in the last third (I’m thinking here on talking to the painting which comes to life as his grandfather, for example) – what inspired John’s development?
Darryl: I don’t really think John developed, so much, as there was a gradual revealing of what he was. The mystical edge was always there, but I didn’t get to show it that much. The focus was always more on Sam, so poor John did get short changed.
FPI: Your artwork developed alongside the increasingly involved plotline – the changes in the colouring were especially noticeable – and, I think, greatly improved the look of the strip. Can you tell us a little about how that change came about and what techniques you used to achieve it?
Darryl: Good old Photoshop. I particularly enjoyed posterising the colours. Constant experimentation, basically. I can’t really analyse this area of my artwork, as it’s very instinctive.
FPI: I suppose a lot of writing and drawing is. Sticking with the art for a moment, one thing I have noticed both with the strip and with other examples of your art on your site (and even your Christmas card!) is a fascination with drawing cities, which I’m quite happy about since they tend to be terrific looking comics cities – what is it about that subject that draws you (no pun intended) to it?
(one of Darryl’s lovely urban cityscapes)
Darryl: I grew up in the Pennines, where I could always look across the valley and see houses and streets, made tiny by distance. Miniature cities have always fascinated me. I first saw Robert Crumb’s work when I was about twelve, and what struck me forcibly (apart from the rampant sexual content) was that his background buildings often weren’t much more than a vertical oblongs with little squares drawn on them for windows. Very different from the way Marvel and DC comic’s artists drew architecture. Yet this method worked just as well, if not better. It was something of a revelation and I’ve been drawing them that way ever since.
FPI: I’m guessing you still enjoyed the more gag-driven strips too though as you brought them back a few times through the increasingly darker long story?
Darryl: Just now and again I got an idea which would be wasted if I didn’t use it.
FPI: There are some questions now which may seem obvious but we have to ask them because the readers will want to know – is this truly the end for Super-Sam and John-of-the-Night? Are they really dead and, given this is the comics medium where death is rarely a permanent condition, if they have lost all their breathing privileges would you be tempted to resurrect them further down the line?
Darryl: Superheroes shrug off death like most people shrug off a slight cold. It’s become an unavoidable cliché of the genre. I really didn’t want to go down that path, but I’m obliged to go where the ideas take me.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how fictional characters can take on a life of their own. Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t be rid of Sherlock Holmes. Having killed the detective off in a story, Doyle had to bring him back due to public demand (although I suspect the author continued to have story ideas and in the end just wanted to write them down). Holmes has survived the death of his creator and gone on to take a mythic place in our culture. So well known and vivid is this fictional character, that it’s hard to believe he didn’t exist.
FPI: Indeed – actually quite a few letters each year are written and mailed to Holmes at 221b Baker Street, London, I believe the current replies say sorry, Mr Holmes is retired and keeping bees somewhere in the countryside. He is one of the archetypal return-from-the-dead fictional heroes though; as soon as I heard about the recent Batman death I immediately thought of Holmes, Moriarty and the Reichenbach Falls.
Darryl: Sam and John had to die so that I could explore the idea of death for a fictional character. I plan to resurrect them, but in a manner that will reveal itself to be ambiguous as to whether they’re actually alive, or just a fictive creation of another character’s storytelling talent. This will allow me to write about the creative process, and to some extent, the business of cartooning itself.
(a Super-Sam and John-of-the-Night landscape by Darryl, borrowed from his blog)
FPI: Now that sounds interesting and something for us to look forward to in the future. Another perhaps obvious question for you – what’s next comics-wise for you? We’ve seen the first parts of your new Uncle Bob Adventures, are you going to be continuing that or creating something entirely different?
Darryl: The Uncle Bob stories predate the Sam and John tales. I’ve no plan to continue the Bob stories at the moment. I’m really keen to get on with new stories in the Sam and John world. There’ll be two strands to the narrative. One will take place back on earth, showing what happened to some of the characters after Sam and John’s death, and the other will be a kind of freakish Western set in the afterlife (a story within the story).
FPI: How did you find working in the episodic format with a weekly posting? I’d imagine for the earlier gag-driven strips it was quite suitable but perhaps less so when we got to the longer storylines?
Darryl: I found the episodic format more and more confining. The next strip will contain splash pages and even a map. Stuff that I couldn’t easily do on the FP blog, as it would have slowed down the pace of the plot. I had to skimp a little on the characterisation too, as this would have also slowed the narrative.
FPI: Do you think working to this sort of weekly format helped you develop as a comics creator? And do you think by its nature (you were basically our virtual artist in residence) it’s a format which encourages a learning-on-the-job approach?
Darryl: Anything that gets an artist drawing on a regular basis is good, as you can’t help but learn. The process focused not just my artistic ability, but also gave me the chance to dive deep into the ideas. I’m now in a position to explore the huge mass of ideas that the story generated, plus I’m now more able to draw it.
FPI: Overall were you satisfied with the way the series developed? It seemed to me it certainly helped your profile – Tom Spurgeon, to name but one, was saying some very kind things about the strip in the latter months particularly. Do you think the online strip is a good way for a creator to help establish a bit of name recognition with readers that can be helpful later on?
Darryl: If a creator has got the time to do a regular webcomic, then I do recommend it. Unlike print comics, webcomics are not fixed once they’re done. You can actually go back and replace an episode if you want. This means that you can take risks, knowing that you still have the ability to go back and tweak things if you need to. The early pages are a bit clunky, not because I struggled to draw them, but because it took me time to work out what style they should be drawn in.
This always happens when I begin a strip. I’m not someone who spends a lot of time designing characters, before I begin a story. I prefer to just launch right into the strip and learn it as I go along. As a result, some of the early pages will need redrawing, so that they don’t jar so much. I couldn’t be happier with the storyline though, as it expresses exactly want it to.
FPI: A question you know we always try to ask our guests now, what comics and/or books have you been enjoying recently and are there any names you think we should be looking out for in the near future?
Darryl: I’m the last person to ask, as I very rarely buy any comics (hangs head in shame). I was loaned a copy of King Kat Classix. This is the collected works of the mini-comic genius John Porcellino’s King Kat Comics. The first fifty-seven issues of his self-published, photocopied zine. Some people think that Porcellino can’t draw, but those people need slapping across the head with a wet fish. Simplicity of drawing is not bad drawing.
At Caption I picked up copies of Paul Rainey‘s There’s No Time Like The Present. This is an ongoing series which I can’t believe doesn’t get more attention. It’s wonderfully drawn. It has rich characterisation. It’s funny and has an intriguing plot. It’s domestic and naturalistic in its style, but it also has a surreal science fiction edge. Imagine a well-written comedy-drama, set in modern Britain, where people from the future are inserting themselves into our society by setting up businesses. The BBC should snap this up.
(Paul B Rainey’s There’s No Time Like the Present)
I also enjoyed recently, Gary Northfield’s Derek The Sheep: a collected book of his Beano comic strips. Lovely loose drawing and slapstick guffaws all round, has helped bring DC Thompson into modern times, while continuing a British tradition.
FPI: Darryl, it’s been a great ride and its been terrific to be in on it. Of course we’ll expect you to keep us clued in on your next work as it appears. You can read the entire run of Super-Sam on the blog here and there’s a full archive with the larger images here on the FPI site; you can keep up with Darryl via his blog.
Darryl: Will do. Over and out.