Director’s Commentary: Who on Earth was Thaddeus Mist? Owen Johnson
The concept of ‘Who on Earth was Thaddeus Mist?’ reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?’. In that book, friends and foes gather around the coffin of the Batman and regale each other with tales of his varied and mysterious life. Inevitably, having met him in different circumstances and known different sides of him, the guests all have differing accounts of the type of man he was, leading to the question of who he actually was and whether any of them actually knew him at all. ‘Thaddeus’ has a similar set-up, as, in Victorian England, people attend the wake of the titular individual, with separate artists and writers taking turns to tell the story of each guest. I love this kind of story-telling and the elements of mystery here also appeal, so I asked editor, writer and main man Owen Johnson to talk us through the intricacies of pulling together a host of British talent together to bring his vision into being.
‘Who On Earth Was Thaddeus Mist?’ was born out of Dave West and Colin Mathieson (co-founders Accent UK, and no strangers to blog readers), and their desire to take some risks with their themed anthologies (previously Zombies, Western, Robots etc). I, being a fan of the Kate Bush record ‘The Dreaming’ and David Bowie’s brilliant creation Ziggy Stardust, suggested creating a book more akin to a concept album of music: a continuous storyline that multiple creative teams contributed “tracks” to. It was felt that this way the creative teams had the best of both worlds: the freedom to explore tales of personal interest, while tying into a larger narrative everyone had a hand in crafting.
This decision of form presented itself at the same time as images started appearing for the story on which it would hang: A gothic mansion in Victorian London. The funeral of a mysterious and eccentric gentleman. The memories of the guests’ conjuring different men.
Suddenly using a team of different writers and artists had story logic: contradiction was justified because memory is fiction – therefore subjective – and the art-style became representative of the character telling that particular story. The idea of having multiple unreliable narrators was built into the writing. The company seemed to like this idea and entrusted me with making it a reality. This was very flattering and a pinch terrifying. This led to approaching the writers I had met around the UK circuit and enjoyed working with, or simply admired their work. Andrew Cheverton, who wrote the brilliant West series and more recently The Whale House; Ben Dickson, as I was a fan of his previous anthology work; Marleen Lowe (who both writes and draws here for the first time) because I think she’s the most talented artist currently working in the UK. There are many others. Thaddeus was a great excuse to get in touch with all of them.
Right from the off, I warned them it was something I wanted to write almost in round-table (no mean organizational feat). The goal was stories that reference each other and create the sense of a wider universe by interweaving the threads. The collaborative nature of the book then became much more interesting for me to work on, its creation more like an installation art project, where suggestions and ideas from the artists and writers were spontaneously incorporated into the story. Although I knew the arc, I told them very little: Thaddeus Mist was eccentric and mysterious and dead. Each creative team was assigned a funeral guest. That character, story, and their relationship to the deceased – and most importantly their attitude towards him – was open to invention.
By wonderful accident or design, an aspect of Victorian literature was examined by each writer: Oscar Wilde-influenced decadent writing with Max Deacon and Nicola Patten; Mark Douglas and Mark Penman’s story has a Conan Doyle sheen; Dave West and Steve Howard’s contribution is a love letter to the adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard; terrifyingly, Ben and Leonardo’s Dickensian tale is directly inspired by an factual document detailing happenings of the time. This all added some depth and ensuring the Victorian period was not just an interesting visual setting. The hope was to create a sprawling gothic beast – we all love horror and the macabre, Victorian fiction, and all wish ourselves to be British eccentrics! As Steve Yeowell suggested recently, there are also traces of Janus Stark and Adam Adamant in Thaddeus’s genetic make-up.
I decided early on (perhaps foolishly), that I would then write the main narrative after the individual contributions came through. I wanted everyone to have as much freedom as possible, but also the key themes of flawed memory and the potency of imagination meant I could directly contradict (or more interestingly, create parallels and similarities) with those individual contributions. This was actually a lot of fun – to expand on threads only hinted at in the work of the other writers, while investigating fully the relationship between Zelda and Thaddeus.
For my part, I felt a great responsibility to honor the characters and ideas these creators built, while still chasing my own ghosts. I was reading some Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alan Moore’s non-fiction work, and Bryan Talbot’s genius Luther Arkwright stuff, Also The Prestige by Christopher Priest (and the Nolan film), anything Mignola produces. All these elements got mixed around and manifested in different ways.
For me, the strengths of Accent UK anthologies was that they gave a platform to fledgling creators to take risks and try new things, myself included. Thaddeus is firmly entrenched in that tradition of finding talent in the unlikeliest of places. Nicola Patten has a background in fashion design and had previously never drawn a comic book before! But, upon seeing her work, I knew that those skills would translate and add a flavor to the dish that I was missing.
Other creators that I felt I needed to snap up were guys like Jack Tempest, who managed to slip effortlessly from drawing frog-monsters and Lovecraft inspired adventures to quiet, character scenes where those inflections and facial emotions needed to resonate. Since I met Mark Penman and saw what he was doing on his creator-owned series Peabody & D’Gorath, I knew he was an artist worth working with. We click on Mignola and the occult, and I admire his vision. He deserves to be huge. Every artist that ended up on the book did so because they produce high quality work and because they were pleasurable people. This is no truer than the case of Conor Boyle, who I met at Thought Bubble 2011 and knew within five minutes was the guy to draw the main narrative of the book. Conor and his wife Lizzie (who run one of my favourite imprints Disconnected Press) are the hardest working people I know. They’ve become something like guardian angels during the first stages of my journey through the great maze.
Conor stepped on-board as not only my collaborating artist, but also as a visual consultant – ensuring continuity was kept and each artist’s character designs were up to date with each other. His attention to detail and the strong sense of location in his art was apparent immediately. I knew the main narrative was to be almost entirely set on the grounds of Mist House – and told in real-time over twenty four hours – and Conor managed to ground everything perfectly. To this end, I also managed to draft in Jim Campbell to letter the entire book. With so many art styles and visual acrobatics, it was important to keep a consistency to the voices within. Conor even created blue-prints of the house as the geography of the building was so closely meshed with Zelda’s psychological and emotional state.
The technique of utilizing different artists developed to such an extent that it was possible to interweave two or more artist’s work for specific moments in the story. I roped Indio into drawing spot-illustrations of Zelda’s violent migraine visions and we were able to literally create an art-mash fusing every artist’s version of Thaddeus onto a singular panel. I’m sure this caused Conor no end of problems! Ha! But it was worth it and looks breathtaking! It’s another example of the story working symbiotically and creating a reason for the diverse visuals and the techniques used to achieve them.
All you can really do as a creator is make something you would want to read, and that’s what we tried to do on this project. I’m intensely proud of the comic and hope others get a kick out of what we’ve done. ‘Who On Earth Was Thaddeus Mist?’ will launch at Thought Bubble in November and select bookstores shortly afterwards.
Many thanks to Owen for taking the time to gather his thoughts on the book.