Director’s commentary: Dan Lockwood, Si Spurrier and Matt Timson talks us through some Lovecraftian fun
We loved the first Lovecraft Anthology that Dan Lockwood put together for SelfMadeHero. Now with the second anthology about to launch this week – tomorrow in actual fact, after many sacrifices by Dan to the Elder Gods for their dark blessings – we have a treat for you: Si Spurrier and Matt Timson created one of the segments and Si has been good enough to tell us a bit about how he appraoched this, his first literary adaptation for comics and how hard he has to prod Matt with a special stick to get him working at his art table. Meanwhile Matt has been kind enough to find a way to talk us through a Commentary to give us some insight into crafting the tale without spoiling a powerful short story (not the easiest balance to manage, but he’s done it and done it well), while editor Dan Lockwood tell us a bit about the work involved in putting together a multi-creator anthology. Without further ado over to Si, Dan and Matt for a look into the making of part of the Lovecraft Anthology Volume II:
Hello. I’m Dan Lockwood, the editor of The Lovecraft Anthology series for SelfMadeHero. As an editor and/or proofreader, I’ve worked on many great titles for SMH over the last four or five years. But these anthologies are the only books that I’ve worked on from inception to publication, and as a result they’re the books I’m most invested in. Let me just disabuse you of one thing right off the bat: there is nothing glamorous about being an editor. It’s a job that involves the organisation and management of people, attention to detail, administration and panic. All this would be true for any book, but it’s worse when it’s something you believe in and care about. It stops being a job, and very quickly becomes personal. Below, I’ve tried to convey some of the steps that I go through in putting these books together.
Everything in the anthologies starts with the stories. I have a master list of Lovecraft stories which I think are appropriate for the series – leaving out those tales which are (a) bad or (b) overtly racist.
As I’ve brought the issue up, a brief note on Lovecraft’s racism: since starting this project, I’ve encountered the view that Lovecraft’s racist tendencies are “of their time” or “a reflection of the broader society” and should therefore be retained in adaptation (the ‘warts and all’ approach), and I was once taken to task for trimming out some of the more obvious slurs – I think that person was suggesting that I was glossing over the whole issue in a PC-gone-mad kind of way (the ’pretend it doesn’t exist’ approach). I think these comments miss the point. It’s one thing to include a character’s racist opinions, if those opinions are key to the plot. But too often Lovecraft used casually derogatory terms as a form of descriptive shorthand – which, to my mind, is cheap, lazy and frankly unnecessary. And while our adaptations occasionally touch on some of these areas, I hope we’ve struck the right balance. I don’t want to cause offence. I want you to be horrified by the monsters, not by the name of a cat. Without wishing to labour the point, I’d recommend reading this piece by China Miéville about Tintin in the Congo and applying his philosophy of decency to Lovecraft. This should give you a rough idea of where I’m coming from. I guess this is a long way of explaining that the series won’t be including ‘Medusa’s Coil’ (the twist is… she’s black!). Ever.
Anyway, getting back to the planning stage… I have a set number of pages to fill. Which tales should I include? What order should they go in? Is this artist’s style too similar to the next one? Have I given a writer enough pages to convey the essence of a story successfully? Can the contributor I want fit us into their insane schedule? And are they willing to work with the person I’m matching them up with? Have I included too many stories about grave-robbing? These are the sort of issues I spend weeks obsessing about. And once I’ve finally organised a book I want to read, will SelfMadeHero agree with my choices? If they don’t like one artist, I’ll replace them with another. Which may require a reordering of the stories. And so one, until we’ve finalised a line-up.
Next, the writers write. I read their scripts. I compare them to the original text, proofread, suggest things. There’s some discussion, occasionally an argument. I pass the final script to the artists. They send in (depending on their method) sketches, roughs, pencils, inks and coloured pages. Some of them letter their own pages, others refuse. It’s a juggling act, and while I wish I could claim never to have dropped a flaming chainsaw, it would be a lie. Mistakes happen. Problems crop up. But if you’re working with contributors who care about the material and a company that cares about its output (both happily the case here), these things can be spotted and dealt with in good time.
And now comes the hardest part: letting people read the book. The Lovecraft Anthology, Vol 2 comes out this week. It contains contributions from an amazing group of people. Some you’ll know, others you might not. I’d like to thank them all for their wonderful work – as with the first volume, the results have exceeded my expectations in almost every way. I hope you enjoy it, and thanks for reading.
What can I say about The Festival…?
It’s the first prose story I’ve ever adapted as a comic, so I suppose I was groping about in the dark at the start. I hadn’t read the original version in years, and (depressingly) the only thing I could clearly remember about it was a long and typically-Lovecraftian description of some gribbly monsters near the end, which are defined precisely according to what they don’t look like. On the inevitable re-read, in preparing for this job, I flicked directly to that section of the story – hoping I’d misremembered. Alas not: The beasts were not quite like radishes, nor ants, nor ocelot arseplugs, nor toe-jam, nor train-engines, nor toilet-brushes, nor cheese-flavoured wheat snacks, nor varnish, nor Tuesday, nor a mirror taken from the staircase of the Titanic’s sister vessel, nor a leper’s daydream, nor the smell of C-sharp, nor…
I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.
In comics one of the writer’s jobs is to tell the wretched pencil-monkey picturist exactly what to draw – they can’t be expected to know these things for themselves, the poor dears – and I could just imagine how Matt would’ve reacted if I’d described the monsters in Lovecraft’s own terms. He does this thing occasionally where he goes green and veiny and throws lorries at people – I’ve seen it. Purple pants are involved. So, yes. Not a good start to my first collaboration with an old friend.
Of course, then I went back and read the rest of the story, and remembered what a creepy, tense, oh-so-slowly-escalating chunk of weirdness it is – which hastily reignited my excitement. It’s essentially the tale of a guy travelling to a seaside town to fulfil a promise he made to his dead father – to attend a quaint little folk-festival at Christmas time. This being Lovecraft, it turns out said Folk Festival is actually a cultish invocation to Dark And Unknown Deities™, complete with horrific underground rites, two uses of the word “chlorotic”, a waxy-faced mute, an appearance by an actual copy of the Necronomicon, and the aforementioned monsters which Don’t Look Like Anything.
At its heart The Festival is about a descent: both literal (as our confused hero schleps into the maggoty tunnels and twisted stairways beneath the township’s old soil) and figurative (as his veneer of civilisation and expectation is shattered by exposure to… well… to some serious wrongosity). That sort of tension – the building sense of chaos and madness – is an absolute gift in the medium of comics, with its enormous toolkit of narrative toys. I read (and loved) Top Shelf’s first Lovecraft anthology, but – being a contrary bugger – wanted to try and do things a little differently. That descent-into-lunacy was the key.
(one of Matt’s character studies for The Festival in the second Lovecraft Anthology)
See, one of the problems with adapting Lovecraft for comics is that so much of the guy’s brilliance – so much of the tone and atmosphere, and most of all the veiled descriptions – are entirely dependent on his deployment of words. Whether you think he’s overly purple or an adjective-smith without peer, at a nuts-and-bolts level his style is (frankly) anathema to the conventional comic-book wisdom of “show don’t tell”. Lovecraft’s all about telling – or at least about hinting – and that’s a tough call on a page dominated by pictures. A lot of writers from the first Top Shelf anthology had approached this problem in a very sensible way: by including snippets of Lovecraft’s prose as caption text to accompany, juxtapose and resonate with the art. I knew I’d have to do something similar just to capture the essence of HPL, but I thought this story presented the opportunity to twist it a little too.
…And so, as our hero’s brain is stretched and strained by the oddness he encounters, the neat nuggets of narration hovering on the panel artwork decompose and degrade; the English syntax fractures; and – vitally – the form of the words themselves flexes and becomes spiky. I know Matt found the whole thing an incomparable pain in the arse, but he’s risen to it incredibly: using the words themselves as elements of the artwork. They warp and writhe at moments of extreme madness, leaving this formerly-salient narrator simply spitting-out Lovecraft’s more delicious adjectives like a lunatic. Squatting… amorphous… unlit… the noisome piper! It works a charm.
Even wackier, I asked poor old Matt to fiddle with the shapes of the panels in moments of heightened Crazy too: letting the regimented squares and straight lines collapse, replaced by shards and splats. Again, I couldn’t be happier with the result: it turns the very mechanics of the page into an added string on the bow of atmosphere – endowing every frame with its own tone and emotion.
I sound like a right pretentious tit, I know. Trust me, it totally works.
Anyway: on to those bloody monsters. I won’t spoil it for you, but that same harmonic sense of being led by Lovecraft’s most purple adjectives must’ve gripped Matt’s primal brain and induced a genuine slice-of-horror. These things embody HPL’s fevered non-description: flopping… webbed and membranous… limp… hybrid things no sound eye may grasp… no sound brain may remember.
…Well Matt’s eyes and brain presumably ain’t sound at all, because grasp the beasts he did, remember them he does. And bloody drawn the fuckers he has – hair-tendrils, squinty eyes and all. HPL might’ve spent 200 words telling us what the critters don’t look like, and done it with style and panache and tension… but you’ll forgive me if I ruin it all now by crudely spending just 3 words telling you what they do look like:
Punk Dolphinfrog Turdbats.
Creepy little buggers.
The final difficulty this tale presented was the very ending. It’s typical of Lovecraft – a man I suspect would’ve been very fond of the phrase “why use one word when one hundred will do?” – that it culminates in a dense and rambling “quote” from the Necronomicon itself, which resonates with all that’s gone before and casts a hideous light on former events. How the hell do you make that work in a comic?
There was no way around it in the end: we went with a straight textblock. But even then Matt took the opportunity to noodle with the style of the letters, giving the story one last little shriek of madness. And the little picture that accompanies it…? Brrr!
And now to Matt:
So… This is the initial rough for pages 7 and 8. I laid all the pages out two at a time, so that I could make better use of the dead space between panels (although I didn’t actually do that on these pages). Also, because I only had a small window of opportunity to get the job done, psychologically speaking, it made 14 pages feel like 7. It’s actually worryingly neat compared to a lot of my roughs, but that’s because I’d already spent time building sets in Sketchup. Specifically: the church, the crypt beneath the church and the stairs beneath the crypt. I actually used two models- a standalone one of the church and graveyard- and another that’s more of a cutaway, with the crypt and staircase attached underneath.
Everything I do is drawn digitally and at no time does a pencil ever come into contact with actual paper. I tend to lay everything out in Photoshop and then flip-flop between that and Painter until I’m happy. Once the page is initially roughed out, I work one panel at a time and put everything together in Photoshop when I’ve finished. It’s a stupid and laborious way of working and I’m trying to streamline the process a bit- to the point that I’m determined that this is the last strip I’ll ever draw this way. Maybe.
I work on a Cintiq and, before that, I worked on an A4 Intuos 3. Unlike most comic artists, I never had to make the transition to digital as I was already working digitally as an illustrator before I decided to have a go at comics. The downside of this is that the only original artwork of mine that you’re ever likely to get your hands on are convention sketches (which I give away for free, kids).
I use Sketchup a lot- simply because I find it easier to build sets that I can view from any angle, rather than faffing about with grids and actual talent and wotnot. Backgrounds used to be my enemy, but now I really enjoy doing them- and sometimes I even resent the fact that a lot of them will be obscured by trivial things like characters and word balloons.
Set building can be tedious at times and I suppose that, technically, it’s easier to just wing it- but I like to know that everything is exactly where it should be from panel to panel and that I’m not going to trip myself up, continuity-wise (although I still manage it here and there).
My other big cheat is that I sculpted reference heads for the the two main characters in ‘Sculptris’, which is essentially a poor man’s Zbrush. Again, it takes a bit of time, although it doesn’t take so long that it isn’t worth the effort- and it means that I’m not second guessing myself over likenesses and that. I sometimes use Poser as well- especially if a scene is particularly complicated- or even if I’m just struggling a bit (we all have off-days). I know a lot of artists poo-poo this practice, but I also know a few artists that do it and just keep quiet about it. My own personal feeling on this is that I will use every tool available to me to get the images that I want. It doesn’t matter to me if I have to ride into town on the back of a syphilitic shit-encrusted donkey- so long as I actually get into town.
Si asked from the outset if we could do away with caption boxes altogether and I happily agreed. However, it wasn’t until I was actually getting down to the work that I fully appreciated the difficulties involved with having text only. I was forever trying to balance the light and shadow so that the lettering was never washed out by a too bright background (not something that anyone would ever usually ascribe to my work), which is actually a lot trickier than it looks. That said, because I was lettering it myself, it meant that I was able to tailor the art to fit- and I think that the pages actually look a lot better for it. There are places here and there where I absolutely loathe the letter placement- but it simply couldn’t go anywhere else.
I thought it was important that the reader could see what was written on the tablet, so I had to add a panel- which meant having to chop page 7 up a bit. Again, panels 3 and 4 are both taken from the same church set used in panel 1. It might have taken me three years* to build, but it meant that these two panels took minutes to lay out. MINUTES. Who’s laughing now, eh? (*may have taken slightly less.)
I was initially wary of the script for page 8, because the action in the first panel runs right to left, rather than the usual and non-mental left to right. Originally, I think that the panel of the previous page was intended to run along the top of this one, but that by the time the script reached me, this was no longer the case (presumably due to space issues). I’m pretty sure I’ve had this conversation with Si at some point- I just can’t remember what the answer was now. Anyway- I used the second church set for this, which has the crypt and stairs built underneath it. It’s a shame we couldn’t have had that panel above it as well, as I think it would’ve made a great visual, with the reader zig-zagging down the page.
Having said that, I’ve just realised that I made a bit of a boob. The guys at the bottom of page 7 are descending the wrong way down the steps. So much for set building aiding continuity!
Behold! The unnecessary faff that goes into each panel:
I start with my dirty cheaters’ sketchup model, which is just a section of the one already used, viewed from a different angle. From this, I rough out my panel (including the letters- as this helps me better place the art); create the line art and then smudge the line art in Painter. “Madness!” I hear you cry. Well yes, it is a bit mad, I suppose- especially as I then put all that detail back in again by painting in between the original lines. The end result is that I get my lines back, but with them being softer and a bit less rigid. It is a crazy way of working though, which is why I’m not going to be doing it anymore. Probably.
Next, I add a layer of grey tones. In an ideal world, I would now have the good sense to pass the whole thing over to a decent colourist. Instead, I start adding texture, colour and highlight layers, until I’m happy that the panel is now coloured. It is coloured, but I’m reasonably sure that a normal colourist won’t use 20 layers to get the job done (which is how many were in this panel- I just merged a few of them together to spare you the boredom of repetition). This is why I have to work a panel at a time. I think my brain would just melt if I was doing all this stuff a page at a time.
My last cheat- I didn’t draw that water at the bottom of page 8. It’s a snap of the sea that I took and then ran through various filters until I got it looking the way that I wanted. I already had the panel in my head when I took it though- so there is some artistic merit involved. I drive poor Mrs T mad with stuff like this. I’ll see useful or interesting patterns all over the place that I insist on stopping and snapping with my phone, for later use. She’s got two kids dragging their feet on one side and me stopping every 10 seconds to snap something that’s caught my attention on the other. It’s a wonder we ever get anything done.
Thanks to Matt for taking the time to talk us through creating some Lovecraftian nightmares; you can see more of Madman Matt’s work on his Tumblr and follow him on Twitter; Demented Dan is also on Twitter as is Spooky Si, who also has a site here where you can follow news of his comics work and his novel writing (including the recent A Serpent Uncoiled). The Elder Gods can be followed via the Necronomicon…