Dodging life’s brickbats
For our latest “director’s commentary” I’m lucky enough to be able to present Brick discussing his upcoming graphic novel and talking us through some of his pages. I was intrigued right away when I first heard that Knockabout Comics would be publishing Depresso this winter (I think it is going to be a book to watch for) and I had to ask Brick if he’d be kind enough to maybe talk us through a bit of the book; I’m glad to say he agreed, so I will hand you over to him:
I’ve spent decades as a political cartoonist churning out highly controlled, heavily scripted comic pages designed to unpick and satirize the complex issues of the day (see Two Towers pdf here). If I was going to create a self-contained book, I’d want to adopt a more relax, free-wheeling approach to every stage of production, and I’d draw it up as I went along. It’s more fun that way, and having written two travel books (The Chalke Way and After the Gold Rush), I know all about the drag of a prolonged pregnancy.
But I didn’t set out to produce a graphic novel, any more than I set out to have what the medics call a ‘nervous breakdown’ or two. As it happened, Depresso began as moments of calm in days of torment when the drawing board seemed the only place on the planet where the world wasn’t out to shaft me. While others in crisis frequently turn to their diaries to expunge the trauma of the day, I scripted a few comic pages. Unlike them, I was obsessed with throwing away words.
To this end I bought the smallest practical notebook I could find, a stack of erasers and a 0.7mm propelling pencil. I wrote compulsively and small, on buses and trains, toilets and park benches, even at gigs. Rarely did I plan a layout, but equally I never wrote a speech, commentary or exposition without having a clear picture in mind married to it.
For example, a heavy conversation about emotional insecurity and psychological pain takes place while my two protagonists forage in a skip for wood for their fire. If the banter is thick with Freudian fug, the activity shows the reality of living on state benefits. It was an obvious marriage. After the state of our mental health, survival strategies are the major topic of conversation among nutters. And by bringing the two together, I was able to climax with a gag!
For what it’s worth, below is a page I did plan out, largely because it’s a silent spread, followed by the finished result. (I strike a line through each page when the art is complete.)
Mostly I wrote and visualized without feeling the need to sketch. Just occasionally I scribbled a thumbnail, but that was mainly because the drugs were doing my head in and there was every chance I’d forget the idea by breakfast (see below). I wrote and rubbed out, rubbed out and wrote, and designed the page on the drawing board once I was happy with the sequence.
But there are odd pages in Depresso where I go off on one, like in the chapter where my anti-hero, Tom Freeman, takes time out in China (see below). Again I sort of knew what I wanted, and had the joy of scouring libraries and the net for suitable graphics. If none were forthcoming, I threw out the idea and dreamt up another. In this the imagery led the text.
So my approach was organic in the extreme. I knew I wanted to mix dramatic narrative with hardcore critique, snatches of history with outrageous fantasy, and I figured my passion for rock’n’roll and seminal movies would wiggle their way in somewhere.
I also knew it had to be a rib tickler because, trust me, there’s nothing quite so wacky as the terrifying experience of losing your marbles. But I hadn’t a clue where I was heading, let alone where the hell I’d been, except I knew my Tom would not emerge ‘cured’. It was all a bit of a shambles really, much like my life at the time, though I hasten to add Depresso is only partly autobiographical.
This modus operandi has huge drawbacks and is not recommended for aspiring comic creatives. There were pages or parts of pages I had to redraw time and again. I became a cut’n’paste wizard. Below are versions three and four of a spread where I struggled to depict what I wanted the imagery to say. I can live with the end result.
On the other hand there were sequences that now make me cringe; panels I knew could be improved but I had to walk away from, mostly because their chaos, intensity or sloppy draughtsmanship somehow imparted more about Tom’s state of mind than anything ‘finished’ would achieve. And, of course, once I’d realized I was knocking out a book, I had the nightmare of trying to pull all the disparate strands together. I’m told I’ve pulled it off, but only by remaining true to Tom and his partner Judy, and the reality of mental distress.
In terms of visual style, I’m with Orson Welles when he observed that the most vivid colour movies are those in black and white. I adore the spot work of Ditko and Eisner at one extreme and the lush paintings of Guarnido (Blacksad) and Sienkiewicz (Moby Dick) at the other, but that’s not me. I’m terminally colour blind and have struggled with the disability my whole career. My parody of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour is as vibrant as the original in my mind’s eye.
And I’ve never been big on flashy panel designs, baffling layouts or indulgent graphic devices that blitz the margins of the page. They kind of remind me of musicians who change guitars every number, serving only to prove they’re geeky collectors and need to take a walk in the woods. For the convoluted story of Depresso I’ve taken a leaf out of From Hell and only broken the mould where it’s really necessary.
Finally, for the trainspotters out there, I use an HB on 100 gsm laser copy paper and ink over the pencil with a Pentel Chinese fountain brush, a Paper Mate, a Pilot V5 and various super fine UniPins. I scan at a mere 500 dpi into Photoshop, reducing by 64%, knocking back to 300 dpi after applying the grey tones and any found images.
My current project is a humorous investigation into the infamous ‘Leonardo Bicycle’, which has a clear beginning, middle and end. So I treated myself to a slightly larger notebook.
You can see more of Brick’s work here; Depresso is published by Knockabout Comics this November and is available to pre-order now. He will be interviewed on BBC Radio Nottingham on Friday 8th of October around 2pm.