Bryan Talbot. A Life of Constant Curiosity and Experiment.
Writing a novel is taxing enough, but telling your story with pictures as well adds a whole new dimension to the word complex. Bryan Talbot’s work is very varied, but also very dynamic and when you begin to read any of his books you realise you’re in for a great narrative ride. If in doubt of this statement then I refer you to the trailer of Bete Noir (Click on the blue words and see for yourself).
Most graphic novelists have a particular style. However, you appear to employ a wide variety of techniques from plain black and white, more static cartoon drawings, to rich, colourful, dynamic pages.
Is this a deliberate decision for reasons of storytelling or a desire to experiment?
Both. I started out in underground comix, often by their nature experimental. My first graphic novel, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, serialized from 1978, was very obviously experimental. Now I usually experiment below the level of the reader’s perception, rather than interfere with the story, playing around with the placement of eye level, compositional lines, subliminal images, use of colour etc. I do always try to choose a style that is the most suitable for any type of story I’m telling, which is why it can vary between one book and the next. Within Alice in Sunderland, a book of many stories, the style changes many times within the book, depending upon the story being told. The last noticeably experimental book I did was Metronome in 2008.
There is considerable depth to all your stories. For example, The Tale of One Bad Old Rat, is a story about escaping abuse and creating a new fulfilling life, while gathering the heritage of Beatrix Potter and the grandeur of the Lake District into the plot. Alice in Sunderland explores Lewis Carroll’s association with Sunderland, local history, and plays with different personas of you. Even an action filled book like the Grandville series, is more than just dynamic, colourful pictures (which are filled with details).
These are complex storylines to work with using only the written word, never mind having to weave them into the pictures. How do you go about crafting these stories to create the final product?
I always research my stories as extensively as I need to. Research is a valuable resource that enriches any story. The amount varies. With Metronome, I did very little, apart from into visual references. On the other hand, I did develop the visuals over fifteen or more years. With Alice, the research was extensive and really like doing a PhD. For Bad Rat, I read over a dozen books each on the subjects of Beatrix Potter and the psychology of the victims of child abuse, not to mention a few on the Lake District and even some on rats. Even with Grandville, I’ve a few dozen books on historical Paris, Victorian costume, steam machines, Art Nouveau and so forth. I’ve also visited technology museums in various cities and the natural history museums in Milan, Dublin and Helsinki, where I took hundreds of photographs of stuffed animals. Since starting the Grandville series, I’ve also immersed myself in detective fiction.
Developing the stories can take months or years and I do this while drawing stories that I’ve already scripted. I always spend a lot of time on each book’s structure. It has to be rock-solid before I type a word of the script and I always go through several drafts of the plot until I’m satisfied. Scripting a volume of Grandville takes around a week, based on the copious notes on scene descriptions and dialogue I accumulate before beginning. I used to storyboard the books, at the same time as developing the script, but these days I find that I don’t have to. I can see each page as I script it in my mind’s eye, so that cuts out a stage. Then I have to draw it, which takes considerably longer than the writing.
Your books vary considerably in page length. How long, on average, does it take for you to complete a page from starting with a basic idea to the finished article?
It depends upon the style. With Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, I could easily do a complete page in a day. The Grandville series pages take around four days a page. These are 10 -12 hour working days I’m talking about.
You began drawing comics in the 1970s. Technology has moved on since then. How do you feel about digital drawing programs in the production of comics and graphic novels?
Though I produced Metronome completely on computer, as part of the experimentation, I much prefer using pencil, pens and brushes and the drawing board. It feels natural. With Alice, I produced the illustrations this way, but then scanned them in and composed the pages on computer, sometimes producing collages using old illustrations, maps and ephemera. Grandville is pencilled and inked, then coloured on computer.
The Grandville series has a very interesting alternative historical backdrop to its stories, as England has been conquered, at one point, by the French. Anthropomorphized animals are the superior ‘race’ and there is also a Steampunk element. How did this story come about?
It’s because the original inspiration for the book was the work of the early 19th century French illustrator, Jean Ignace Isadore Gérard. He produced many satirical anthropomorphic drawings and used the nom de plume “JJ Grandville”. I’d had a book of his work for years but, shortly after finishing Alice, I suddenly thought that “Grandville” could be a nickname for Paris, as the greatest city in the world in an alternative reality populated by talking animals. That’s why it’s anthropomorphic and set in France, though I set the stories in a later time period, the 1890s. I’d been wanting to write a detective story for some while, so this seemed the perfect opportunity.
Do you have a particular audience in mind when you produce your books?
I simply write and draw comics that I’d like to read myself. If I didn’t produce books to please myself, how could I expect anyone else to like them?
Grandville: Bete Noire! is due out at the end of this year. Do you see yourself continuing with this series and what other projects do you have waiting in the wings?
I’ve scripted the next in the series, Grandville Nöel, which I hope to start drawing soon, and have roughly plotted out the fifth volume. Meanwhile I’m doing the lettering, page breakdowns and panel compositions for Sally Heathcote, a graphic novel scripted by my wife Mary and being drawn by the excellent Kate Charlesworth. The complete Cherubs! supernatural adventure, scripted by me and drawn by the hottest Brit Indie artist, Mark Stafford, is out soon from Dark Horse and I’m currently scripting a heroic fantasy webcomic graphic novel.