Director’s Commentary: Chris & Ben on crafting Porcelain
When Matt Gibbs was kind enough to let me read an advance copy of Benjamin Read and Chris Wildgoose‘s then-upcoming graphic novel from Improper Books, Porcelain, I fell in love with it instantly. There are some books and comics where I don’t just enjoy them, I feel a connection, and the wonderful energy that comes from those very special books is one of the reasons I read. In my review I described Porcelain as “one of the most beautiful graphic novels of the year“, and I stand by that, a wonderful fairy tale with elements of Blue Beard, Orphan Annie and Charles Dickens in the mix, delights and disturbing darkness in equal measure (as a good fairy tale should have). With such a lovely book, not to mention a new comics publisher and two emerging talents on the scene I was keen to have Chris and Ben for one of our guest Director’s Commentary posts, where we invite the creators to talk us through their new work in their own words, and as Porcelain hits the shelves this very week I’m pleased to say the boys accepted our invitation:
[Benjamin Read]: ‘Director’s commentary’ seems curiously appropriate as Porcelain: A Gothic Fairy Tale began life on the film set of an indy feature, WARHOUSE, where Chris and I met some years ago. I’d written the film, with my partner-in-crime – director Luke Massey, and Chris had done the concept art, and then been kidnapped onto set as part of the art team, alongside his lovely lady, Laura Trinder. We all became firm friends during the ongoing trauma that is indy film production and talked a lot about our shared interest in comics, fairy tales, and fiction of the darker variety. By the time the film wrapped, we had determined between the three of us to make our own books and we set up a small studio accordingly, at that point known imaginatively as CLB. We later sensibly re-titled to the much snappier Improper Books.
[Chris Wildgoose]: I was fresh into working on Comics at the time too. Originally I was just interested in drawing Concept art and storyboards for films, but the world of comics had opened to me when a friend told me about a project that needed an artist. Ben had seen the prep work I was sketching up while living on the film set and we’d got into some deep conversations about types of comics we were interested in and we just sort of hit it off really well.
[Ben]: Chris and I had done a couple of smaller projects together before we started Porcelain, the True Grit comic adaption for Paramount and a promotional comic for Super 8. Great fun, but with all the pressure and editorial trauma of working to the timeline and requirements of a much larger corporate entity. Bit of a comics bootcamp really. I believe Chris had some very late nights getting things done on time.
[Chris]: Very Late indeed! Don’t get me wrong I’d landed a dream job purely by having my sketches seen by the right person at the right time. But the True Grit job came with a price; a tight, tight deadline, one I don’t care to work to again any time soon! Super 8 was much the same but they did help me cut my teeth in professional comics in a big way. I’d quickened my pace and got a taste for harsh deadline requirements and multiple all nighters. Something I’ve thankfully cut down, but I know I can handle tough deadlines if need be.
[Ben]: Working for other companies on their properties was great, but we were absolutely determined to do something that was truly our own. We’d gone back on forth on a few ideas, but it was always going to be a fairy tale, as we’re both a bit obsessed with the form. Porcelain had been something I’d been noodling with for a year or so, after having a rather vivid dream about the story (first time that had ever happened actually), and it was the clear winner when we decided what story we would tell first. I wanted it to have a fairly tale logic while still grounding it in a certain reality. The city was a deliberate choice of setting, as was the industrial alchemy theme. (I confess I’ve never really thought of it as steampunk; chinapunk maybe, but I’m more than happy for people to enjoy it as such.)
The brilliant critic John Clute has a lovely phrase – windchimes. (And I’m quoting from memory here, so forgive any inaccuracy.) He uses it to describe the feeling in fiction when something isn’t a direct analogue, but when it still evokes the thought of something else, like the distant tinkling of windchimes. I’d like to think that Porcelain has that, the sense of some other, older, stories tinkling through it – the forbidden door of Bluebeard, a secret garden, a bird in a (Juniper) tree with a tale to tell – all tinklings, nothing more though, and I hope that it has a life and an identity of its own beyond mere recapitulation.
[Chris]: I think Ben first approached me with Porcelain roughly a little less than a year after we’d worked on the film set. He had some other pieces in the pipeline and I think we’d already begun work on another short project just to stretch our creative juices. But as Ben says we soon decided that this one was the book we wanted out first. We couldn’t wait to get it going, but we took our time. Ben smoothed out the script multiple times and I’d started slowly designing things. Before we knew it, we’d asked Editor Matt Gibbs to join the team and then the ball really got rolling.
[Ben]: Porcelain is where we ironed out our method – in so far as you ever can, that is. It’s not any great breakthrough, but the different stages of it allow for input and innovation, plus happy accidents. It runs something like this:
I write full script.
Our editor, the irreplaceable Matt Gibbs, points out all the incredibly obvious mistakes.
I rewrite the full script, cursing.
Chris and I talk through the script, then he goes and does whatever research he needs to, pinging back sketches and concepts for discussion.
Chris hands in thumbnails for Matt and I to critique.
I rewrite the script where appropriate.
Chris revises thumbs and submits pencils. Matt and I sign off.
I rewrite the script again. Just dialogue this time, as Chris’s storytelling frequently makes my words irrelevant.
Chris forwards the inks and I do a final dialogue polish.
In the case of Porcelain, the whole lot goes off to our genius Brazilian colourist, Andre May, then to the similarly talented, if less exotically located, letterer, Jim Campbell.
We do page proofs as a final check, then we get drunk.
It’s noticeably time-consumptive, but the back and forth seems to allow for the maximum creative contribution from all parties, and let’s the proper fusion that is a good writer and artist relationship occur. It works for us anyway.
[Ben]: Pre-Porcelain, I wrote pithy John Wagner-style scripts. Now I write loooong, prose-filled things with way too much detail. This lets me get the atmosphere that I’m after over and also allows me to avoid what Chris has very diplomatically described as ‘telepathic script directions’. This is where it’s always been utterly clear to me what these things look like, yet I have neglected to include it in the script, presuming that mind power alone would suffice. We could have saved a GREAT deal of time and many hours on Skype if I’d adopted this method before Porcelain. (Sorry, Chris)
[Chris]: As Ben mentioned we have a very natural and flexible way of working out the ideas, setting and the characters. I’ll tend to go away with the script and gather my references, and then I’ll check back with Ben with some very rough sketches, go over the references with him and then I’ll hone the sketches again. This way we tend to constantly feedback and generally come back with a character that we’re both equally happy with.
When working out the Child character for example we had quite a bit of back and forth before the final design, as first Ben’s description was quite open to interpretation. After my first read of the script I’d imagined her to look a lot like Sally Salt from The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. I’d drawn her quite thin and quite ‘ratty’ looking, and a personal preference I had a hard time giving up was her having red hair. There’s also a painting by George Elgar Hicks titled ‘A Gypsy Girl’, which I constantly referred back to when drawing her. She looks nothing like that girl from the painting, but again she was one of the first visuals I had of her in my head.
After the first wave of sketches, we decided on more specifics for her, making her a bit younger than the ‘Sally Salt’ girl. The rest of her costume was up to me, but I’d still wanted to keep that gypsy feel so I gave her that long, wide, skirt, layers of ragged shirts with that little patchy waistcoat of hers.
We went through this honing process for all of the characters. Each had at least two rounds of sketches working out specifics and making sure we were happy with them because we were due to spend a lot of time with them in the coming months of creating the book.
I think roughly we spent a good month of hard planning and feedback on the settings, characters and all over design. I like to get that straight before jumping into a book. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting to a page and realising you haven’t got your prep straight.
With Porcelain I really wanted to pull out all the stops. As mentioned, we had worked on a few projects previously but I really hadn’t found a comfort zone in my artwork. I’ve really found a home in drawing comics now, but how I was approaching the work before Porcelain wasn’t comfortable. Despite this I knew from the first draft of Porcelain how I was going to attack this book. I knew what style I wanted to use and I knew I wanted to get more adventurous with my page layouts. Ben had a beautiful tale and I wanted to give my all to the artwork.
[Ben]: One of the joys of working with Chris is our shared taste in art. We both adore the baroque and the gothic, art deco styling and fine line work, so the art reference for this has been a dream. I think that us both having a background in film has impacted on how we work, both in the willingness to fine tune with repeated edits, and in the crazy level of prep and concepts Chris has done. I know he has the whole house and grounds mapped out and designed somewhere, the loon. (And, I suspect, chunks of the city, which we don’t even see in this book.)
Watching things that have only ever previously been in your head being brought to life is one of the great privileges of writing for a visual medium. Having an artist like Chris on board means that these things are better than the rough imaginings you’ve cobbled together yourself. Child in particular, has been a joy to watch develop. Our prep, indeed our whole process, is very time-consuming but I think it pays off in the finished article.
Pencils, inks and colours
[Chris]: Typically I will layout the full pages in Thumbnails. This helps just get a feel of the page movement and general action. I’ll pass on a pack of these to Ben and Matt and we have a bit of feedback on anything that needs changing and I’ll tweak the layouts if need be.
If all is good with the thumbnails, I’ll go away and get on with the pencils. I tend to mostly blow up the thumbnails to A3 or larger and lightbox the basic line work. Then I’ll rough draw the pencils in blue and then tighten then up with a normal HB pencil. Again another time consuming part I know, but I like to get the pencils as close to done so I make less mistakes with the inks.
Again I’ll pass a pack of pencilled pages to Ben and Matt, check it’s all ok and then print off the pencils in blue onto Bristol Board paper and get inking. At the moment I’m favouring using primarily brush and the odd bit of fine liner. I’m dabbling in digital inks here and there, but I find myself more comfortable with traditional methods just now.
After the inks I’ll scan in the pages, clean up any errors on the computer and then send them to Andre May for colouring. Andre usually gets a pack of colour notes, but we tend to see how he deals with the pages naturally too. Again once he has them done we go over the pages and give any feedback, and then once it’s all given an approving nod, voila! We have made it through the process!
[Ben]: This is very much Chris’s domain. I review pencils with Matt before Chris moves to ink, but the bulk of my input has happened at the thumbnail stage. Saying that, it’s usually at this point that we can really fine-tune story and emotional clarity, leading to such IMs as, “No, angrier, like a… distressed badger.” Or, “Oh my god, stop everything, I forgot to put the runes in the script!” It’s this kind of stuff we look back on and laugh about, of course. *Edges away from enraged artist.*
Lettering and the finished page
[Ben]: It may seem like there’s a lot of rewriting in the Porcelain process, but it’s frequently me taking dialogue out where Chris has sold a story beat with a look, or a perfect bit of body language. I feel blessed to have an artistic partner who can take my crude script and make it dance. He has so often managed to make it look like it does in my head that I do wonder whether there’s something to this telepathic scripting technique after all. There’s a scene early on when Child asks Uncle a question about his past that in the original he replied to, but in the final art from Chris, Uncle’s soulful look and the direction of his gaze answered the question far more eloquently than I ever could in dialogue.
[Chris]: I love Ben’s writing. His newest scripts are better than Porcelain, but Porcelain was a blast to work on as an artist. It’s great working with Ben as he’s willing to take heed of an artist’s input. Thus we have that panel change we just mentioned and many other moments when Ben has let the art do the talking or accepted suggestions and slight changes.
The finished book
[Ben]: It’s difficult to offer too much specific commentary without getting spoilery – a LOT happens later on. But one of my favourite sequences is, thankfully, in the first 12 pages (you can download the free 12 page promo of Porcelain here). From Child begrudgingly agreeing to break into the walled garden, to her first encounter with its less than amused owner is just jaw-droppping (and I say that as a fan of Chris’ work, not as a power-crazed writer). Chris pulls out all the stops here. The appearance of the Gog and Magog from the dark is probably my favourite page of that, and the one I have planned for the wall of my study. (Chris, take note!)
[Chris]: Like Ben the first twelve pages hold a special place to me too because they turned out exactly as I’d seen them when first reading the script and Andre’s colours really nail that whole opening for me.
One page I have kept for myself though is just a conversational page between Child and Uncle about half way through, it’s set in a library and I’d found my stride a lot more by that part in the book. I really went to town on the detail and it’s a lovely moment between the two characters.
Page 2 was another of my favourites to work on. You meet the urchins, each of which I’d drawn up individually and even thought up some back-story for them. Such as in Panel 1, the two girls stood next to each other on the right are sisters, and one or two would have actually been friends with Child, but obviously they are all so scared of Belle that none would dare speak out when Belle slaps her to the floor.
I think my favourite character to draw was Child, especially in her urchin rags. She looks so cute and I had so much fun drawing all that messy hair. Ben really brought her to life and often had me laughing out loud to her streetwise comebacks.
[Ben]: Actually, there’s a moment immediately after that in the first panel on Page 3, when Child wipes the blood from her mouth whilst staring Belle down when I knew that we’d really got something, that Chris had properly captured her character, and she was going to just walk off the page and into the room.
[Chris]: Page 5 seems to be a popular page for readers and again was one of the pages I’d visualized in my head on the first read of the script, and I treated it as an experiment. Originally we played with the idea of bordering off each movement of the child. During the pencil stage I’d decided not to do it however, because it looked very clumsy and looked a lot more elegant without. Plus I think the reader could see the movement just fine.
[Ben]: It worked wonderfully, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use the technique again actually.
[Ben]: Improper Books was established as a studio to professionally publish our own independent work, and its growth and success has been both extremely gratifying, and a little bewildering. I’m delighted to say that all the projects we’ve announced so far have had wonderful feedback and it’s taken off far faster than we might have hoped. Porcelain is the first project to see the light of day, but there’s a number of others enroute, including my first book with Laura, Night Post, and Matt Gibbs and Bevis Musson’s Knight & Dragon. Chris and I have got another two projects forthcoming from Improper Books too. The very soon to be released Butterfly Gate, which is our leap into sci-fi (even though it does start in a Victorian garden). It’s a silent book, with no dialogue or captions at all, so it’s a slightly terrifying, experimental departure compared to my usual wordy books. We’re also in the first stages of our next big book, Briar, which sees us moving back into fairy tales but hopefully in a somewhat original way. Exciting times.
FPI would like to thank Benjamin and Chris for taking the time to pen some of their thoughts behind the book and share some of the process in creating it. Thanks also to Improper Books’ Matt Gibbs for arranging and liasing so this piece could happen. Porcelain is on the shelves of UK comic stores this very day and is hugely recommended.