Metaphrog are a strange brew of cartooning. Comprised of writer John Chalmers and artist Sandra Marrs, together they create paranoid fantasies about their native Glasgow, and children’s comics that are more Kafka than Tintin. Coming from markedly different backgrounds — Marrs is originally from France, while Chalmers is a Scot with a doctorate in engineering — the duo are able to suffuse a wealth of experience and culture into their work, which stands as some of the most thought-provoking comics in recent memory.
Their work entered my consciousness as insidiously as a plot element from their Strange Weather Lately series, cropping up unexpectedly in my local haunts — bars, record stores… almost anywhere but comic shops. Their punk publishing ethos that has led to acclaim by non-comics audiences, as well as garnering them nominations for Eisner and Ignatz awards. They are true independent spirits for whom the message is greater than the medium.
So it was with great delight that I visited their home studio in the south side of Glasgow to be fed tea and cakes and discuss their career, influence,s and the importance of dog urine to the creative process.
This interview was conducted on June 30, 2010.
GAVIN LEES: How did Metaphrog get started?
JOHN CHALMERS: By accident. Sandra was drawing and painting and taking photographs, and I’d wanted to be a writer but I didn’t really have the courage. And meeting Sandra probably was the catalyst, and made it more likely. I think we met by hazard really, at my sister’s flat in Govanhill, in Glasgow. We realized we got along quite well.
SANDRA MARRS: John had just come back from the Netherlands, and I had just moved over to Scotland from France. And we thought… Just by combining our interests… Just trying to work together really, doing something a bit different.
LEES: And why comics? Was it something you’d always been interested in?
CHALMERS: I suppose we have always been interested in comics. But initially we recognized how well we got on; and the fact that we shared an interest in literature and film and music. Mostly at first we realized we listened to a lot of the same music, and we both liked comics. We weren’t, well I wouldn’t have said we were comic fans or comic collectors, although I liked underground comics, because I can see the sort of connection with punk and with the idea of breaking down barriers.
MARRS: I read comics as a kid, mostly my dad’s Tintin collection, and then kind of gave up reading them and just read books. And then later on, in my teens, I was re-introduced to comics by friends. Stuff like Enki Bilal or Hugo Pratt, and Moebius as well. And then coming over here I discovered American and British comics, mostly underground stuff, like the Fantagraphics publications, actually — which I had never seen before.
CHALMERS: But you had seen some British and American comics, things like Sin City though …
MARRS: Yeah, in a magazine called Comics USA, if I remember correctly, which came out in France.
CHALMERS: I suppose I had a sort of reciprocal thing going on, being aware of some French comics before we met: artists like Tardi and Hugo Pratt and Moebius, there was his magazine Métal Hurlant and I loved The Air-Tight Garage — it seemed totally fresh, almost improvised. As a kid I read Dudley D. Watkins, the Oor Wullies and The Broons and the comics that were reissued in the '80s in a newspaper that sold millions of copies basically because Oor Wullie was so popular. And, also, like yourself [Gavin], I suppose, like a Scottish kid: parents were quite good, because they just were happy that I was quiet, you know, they weren’t snobbish about it not being literature. But like Sandra I stopped reading them for a while and just read: read books, but also just went out and music, music, music….. going to gigs.
But yeah, it was more just an impetus we had of wanting to work together because we got on well. And Metaphrog came about probably more organically, we didn’t have an awareness of the comic industry so it wasn’t like a big strategy, it wasn’t like a master plan. [Laughs.] Definitely not!
LEES: Sandra, you had studied at art school in France before coming to Scotland. Where did you study and was it fine art? Painting?
MARRS: I studied in Amiens, in France, yes, but it wasn’t an art school…
CHALMERS: You should probably explain here that the French education system is quite different from the ones in Britain or the US…
MARRS: Yeah. In France everybody goes to university or college — and I studied at L’Institut d’Art. We did painting, sculpture, graphism, and a lot of theory (modern art, aesthetics…). It was quite broad really. Actually, I remember my teachers telling me off because my paintings were a bit too cartoony looking!
LEES: And John you come from a completely different background, academically. You have a PhD in engineering, isn’t it? What took you away from that field?
CHALMERS: Engineering: that’s right, in micromachining. Moving away from that field happened fairly naturally, meeting Sandra and realizing that we wanted to do something working together. I had also, I think, realized that I didn’t much care for being in an office — I found myself staring out of the window at the trees.
LEES: You said earlier, Sandra, that when you were at art school your teacher criticized you a little bit because your art looked like comics, so did that seem like a natural progression for you to say, “Well if it looks like comics, let's do comics?” Or were there other urges at work there?
MARRS: I don’t know, I guess it sort of progressed naturally. When I was at art school, in the drawings and paintings I was doing, a narrative element gradually introduced itself naturally, so I guess starting to make comics was a natural progression from that. But I had tried my hand at comics a couple of times through childhood. Although I never thought of taking the path of comics until I met John. I guess there was a kind of snobbery that comics may not be as serious.
CHALMERS: Something we’ve noticed over the years is people perceive the French culture as being more open to comics and bande dessinée. It’s seen as the 9th art. But even so, there’s still a little bit of snobbery when it comes to art. And people don’t really… Maybe it’s slightly different now. There’s always been, and always probably will be some kind of knee-jerk reaction against comics. But I think that’s quite attractive about them in a way, because it’s like saying that [gestures] — it’s a big finger up, and in a sense they’ve got this naturally anarchic quality to them.
LEES: What was your impetus to make narrative art? Is storytelling something you always wanted to do, but you found that drawing and illustrating didn’t fulfill that in and of themselves, so comics were a better outlet for that aspect?
MARRS: I don’t think so. I’m not sure. I did try to write a book with my friend at school when I was a kid. And, obviously, as with most children, there were a few attempts at making comics as well… probably because I was enjoying reading them. Mainly I just liked drawing and I just wanted to draw. My two main interests were books and drawing but I don’t remember ever seeing myself doing anything else in my life than doing that. I seem to remember when I thought what job I would do when I was older: I was just seeing just drawing. I didn’t know exactly what it would involve, whether it would be drawing clothes, or painting. At one point I veered towards painting. And I guess making comics is the result of my love of painting, literature and the movies. It’s also an urge to create something. But I think John is more of a storyteller than I am.
CHALMERS: Totally yeah. Just in order to communicate really, and probably more from the need to communicate than anything else … the stories that we made when we started were more experimentation, and just naturally developed, we would just play, and of course there was the pleasure of creating and telling stories but the desire to communicate wasn’t coming through there particularly; we were just experimenting telling stories. Probably that need reveals itself more with the longer Strange Weather Lately narrative. It was cathartic. Looking back you don’t always know where things have come from. I think that’s one of those cases. There’s a certain awareness of storytelling tradition, which certainly isn’t only a Scottish thing — the oral tradition is quite human.
Most people, if you ask them what they’d like to be, they say a writer. Which is quite strange; apparently that’s the choice job of most people.
LEES: Probably because it's perceived as being quite easy — particularly in the case of comics. It's seen as just sitting around making stories up all day and — I always liked that line from The Simpsons — "drawing things that never were..."
CHALMERS: I don’t know how easy it really is though. Anyway, I don’t think it’s me storytelling, you drawing. It’s not as clear cut or black and white as that… a bit more of a grey area. Both of us work with original ideas, generally incubate them over time and then we’ll collaborate on the work, and how best to try and implement it.
LEES: I would imagine that your working methods have evolved over the years and would depend on the project and so forth but could you talk a little about how you work together.
CHALMERS: Well after the incubation period and discussion of general concepts. I’ll write down notes and then start to type.
MARRS: During the incubation period — but also throughout the whole making of the book — I’ll do sketches and make notes too.
CHALMERS: Eventually we have a script, and then there’s an awful lot going on in the layout stage. At first we used to work more together on the layout stage, and then eventually we were able to trust each other, so we know where each other is coming from — what each other is thinking — we’re on the same wavelength in that sense.
MARRS: I think it was easier to implement, just one person doing the layout, it’s like two heads trying to work on the same thing at the same time: it’s not always very easy or even very effective.
CHALMERS: I think that I visualize it one way when I’m writing it. I’ll give it to Sandra in what I reckon are panel sized bits or chunks. Then Sandra takes those and lays them out, and I’ll check it over. And, usually there’s not much tweaking.
MARRS: Well there’s a lot of tweaking on my part, ’cause sometimes I’ll do like 20 different versions of one scene.
CHALMERS: Maybe I’ll argue the case for something… Occasionally I’ll have indicated where a page break could go. There’s a lot of hidden work in this phase: from script to layout or dummy and nowadays Sandra pencils it and I’ll read over it. There’s a lot of going back and forth.
Firstly I’ll check for everything that I feel has got to be there, for the stories: that’s the essential things, necessary elements. Then Sandra will maybe redo the layout for each page a good few times at dummy stage as she said. That’s what you meant by tweaking! Once we’re both happy with the dummy, then Sandra can go to the drawing board. The actual way of telling a story visually is complex, we hope we’ve grown more sophisticated at it. If you don’t feel like you’re making progress, that’s important in your work, then you’re screwed aren’t you? It’s not a very satisfying existence.
MARRS: I don’t know how others do their layout, but the way I do it is I imagine the scene is really happening, as if I was there looking at it, and I just extract the main images, I guess that’s the simplest way… it’s a bit simplistic… of explaining how it works.
CHALMERS: Some people make comics on their own, and they probably start telling the story by drawing, and drawing is a way of thinking, which seems quite clear to me -- the communications afforded by drawing -- is something else. And we’re trying to combine it, so the effectiveness comes through if you can execute these things in harmony, and that’s a challenge. So the reason for working and doodling it out, is because you have to have a strong feeling that the page is doing the job it’s got to do. Setting, the sort of feeling, towards moods, all the elements play into that, as do the words. And we’re fortunate we’re on the same wavelength ...
LEES: I suppose that rapport and shared vision that you have is reflected in the fact that you work under the one name, Metaphrog. Whose idea was that? And is there any significance to the name — it’s nothing to do with you being French, Sandra, is it?
CHALMERS: In France the derogatory term for the English is les rosbifs [The Roast Beefs] but Sandra didn’t know that frog was used here for French when she suggested the word… we just liked the sound of phrog with a “ph”, with connotations of phone phreaking and very importantly the fact that it was one name, like a band. A name that was something genderless and faceless, appealed to us too. If it goes further and usurps thinking about difference or racism then that’s good too…
MARRS: We’d been playing around with sulphur and phrog and one morning it just came to me in the kitchen. We decided on it pretty quickly like John suggesting it would be good to have people say: what do you think of the Strange Weather Lately?
LEES: I think what is interesting about what you were saying, Sandra, is how you visualize the story. It seems to me very cinematic. When looking at your scripts here, they seem more like a film script than a comic. Certainly there’s less description of what’s going on in the scene, it’s more just indicators that the scene happens in this particular location. To me, that speaks to a great deal of trust between the two of you — that you'll always make the right decisions — but maybe in reality, there's a lot more communication goes on between you than just what's in the script?
CHALMERS: I think you’re probably right, but you were looking at a Louis script page, and with that, because we’re both aware of the way the world should look, then a lot of it is a given, with Strange Weather Lately there would have been more in the way of sort of theater directions, if you like.
MARRS: Did you do that in the script, do you remember?
CHALMERS: I put the locations and key events, key actions and the players and what was the dialogue, but I was basically writing it for you, and it’s episodic and it’s kind of done in chunks, it’s got a kinda drive. I wanted to write something that had an impetus, and it's very much a product of what it was because I was giving you three-page chunks or something like that, the scenes in bits, and I knew what was going on [points to head] here, but you didn’t have the big picture. Whereas with the Louis books, Sandra knows the big picture: and it was less enervating and upsetting, you know it’s not great to be kept in the dark, especially if it’s your daily work.
CHALMERS: Do you see what I mean? So if you’re working with somebody, you’ve got to be quite compassionate and be at least unselfish enough to share your doubts and share your feelings and get the bulk of the story written, at least in a schematic way. I’ll put it down in a sort of schematic way, so that Sandra knows generally speaking what’s going on. And with regard to it being, like, theater or filmic style: I’ve never bothered thinking about how to put down a comic script that would be commercially sellable or commercially utilizable, because I work with Sandra and we know each other, we can iron out things, we’ll talk things through. So, we’ll go to the park and go for a walk and figure out how best to use a page or work out a scene…
The thing with comics is they are simple and complicated at the same time, with the Louis books, there was a nine panel grid rhythm going on predominantly, up until the new book. With the new book, Louis — Night Salad, we’ve played with the form, and we’ve tried to experiment with the rhythm of reading more than before, and in that way Sandra got more input in the writing, and I’ve had more input in the layout and drawing than usual. Our roles have kind of blurred to a greater degree than ever before, because we’ve both realized there’s mechanisms at work on the page, or pages… much different from a film, because with a film it’s chronologically dictated, unless you use a DVD or video recorder to rewind or fast forward things, basically it washes over you, the chronology is linear, it’s dictated… with comics, you see the future, the present, past, and the dynamic’s much, much more interactive, with the whole page and we’ve tried to learn about how to do that as we’ve worked together. I can see the progression of your art throughout Strange Weather Lately, for example, and I am more aware of what sophistication you've applied to the pages and the layouts, because we do discuss how we’re gonna do this, as a problem, or a challenge, it’s not always easy to find a solution or a method to get a page working, to get it readable and aesthetically pleasing…
MARRS: Actually, this book’s the first book where I feel I was — not “in control” — but I was more aware of what I was doing and how it was working out, I think. Up to the book before, Louis — Dreams Never Die, I was doing the layout and reading your script and kind of making the story, but I think I was never able to take a look back far enough to be able to kind of see the whole thing objectively, I think I was too close to it. I think with this book it is the first time I feel like I’ve managed to sit myself back a bit and see the work from more of a distance and take more conscious artistic decisions, so that I knew, I was a bit more aware of, what I was doing and achieving… I guess before the process was more intuitive to a degree.
CHALMERS: We’ve both talked and discussed the story and the book and its structure much more. And you’ve revised more pages, you’ve revised more pages than ever before too. Also, I think we had a kind of manic rhythm up to that point because we were bringing out a comic every two months for quite a long time…
MARRS: Yeah with Strange Weather Lately.
CHALMERS: …which looking back seems quite insane.
LEES: Yeah. It’s not just writing and drawing it, it’s also all the trappings of being your own publisher and publicist.
CHALMERS: You’ve gotta come up with a cover and a back cover, and deal with the distributors and things like that, and do all the extra work, which we didn’t mind doing, but it’s just — it’s time consuming and it’s quite onerous…
LEES: You were quite fortunate in the fact that with Strange Weather Lately — practically your first comic — you were able to strike up a relationship with Diamond and get distributed through them. Did you find that having that kind of pressure helped to motivate you to produce material. That you had to do a bi-monthly comic and it’s a train that leaves the station every two months?
CHALMERS: Definitely, yeah. We treated it like a job or a… it was our life, in a sense. And, you had to be careful if you went out, you paid for it. Not like in terms of, like four pounds for a beer, or something, but we suddenly became aware that is was quite serious, quite time-consuming…
MARRS: But we’ve always been motivated to produce things, and meeting distributor deadlines, that was a good training ground -- it gave us momentum.
CHALMERS: You know, it wasn’t so much that we started off just playing, it’s always been enjoyable. But yeah, having distribution through Diamond, it was a huge support… working for ourselves could potentially have been very isolating, it’s important to try and cultivate an infrastructure or network of support…
And, Diamond were and are very supportive, and it was a huge help knowing that comics would reach comic shops all round the world. But it was also a very enjoyable thing to do, because you’re dealing with people… we went over to America and met them. When we went to San Diego, we were lucky enough to meet the people from Diamond there, and, later, we even visited them at their headquarters in Timonium.
But, I think, we tried to also do things that would work together with them, like give out tea bags with free copies of Strange Weather Lately #5. We took cans of beans to conventions with special labels stuck on them and handed them out around the places so that people saw that we'd been there. We didn't have a marketing budget; we didn't have a low budget: we had a “no budget” for marketing. We tried to be creative about putting our stuff out there, so we thought about ways of making people laugh or think, unexpectedly. We put… each comic, when you cut the covers down to size from A4, had leftover space and we used that to make flyers and bookmarks, like little maggot book marks or little tea pot flyers, and left them all over the place, wherever we went. We were also aware that we had to deliver the comic and with all the additional things, front cover, back cover, and dealing with the sponsors, every two months.
LEES: Yeah. Although, if you neglected all the publicity, there wouldn’t be anyone to deliver the comic to, which is all part of that juggling act. And drumming up advertisers to help pay for it all.
CHALMERS: We never really thought of them as advertisers: more sponsors, people establishing a kind of a mutual relationship with their community, with like-minded people and/or friends, even as far afield as Abstract Sprocket the comic shop in Norfolk. When we started we didn't get that much feedback, but what feedback we did get was very, very encouraging. To receive a postcard from Frank Plowright who did the Slings and Arrows comic review guide or the UKCAC festivals, he used to do, and also, say, Daniel Raeburn who did The Imp, it's just encouraging from those kinds of people, it's not sustaining only, it's quite uplifting.
LEES: Yeah, I always think that a supportive community -- or “scene” if you like -- is really beneficial to art.
CHALMERS: It's encouraging, ’cause you don’t know, I don’t think anybody really knows that they’re on the right track, maybe that's a Scottish thing?
MARRS: It must be a French thing, as well, then ’cause…
CHALMERS: It's just our personalities, but I'm pretty sure most people have room for self-doubt.
LEES: But there seemed to be a lot of support for what you were doing from, like you were saying, the local community and people you wouldn’t normally associate with comics. Pubs like Nice ’n’ Sleazy’s and The 13th Note, record shops and Quigg's photography shop would sponsor you. You had some unconventional distribution, as well, and you were talking about how you’d stock your comics in bakers’ shops.
MARRS: [Laughs] We’ll we were always trying to take comics out of their confinement and to reach readers who didn’t necessarily read comics.
CHALMERS: People gave us advice, and my favorite was, “Have you thought about putting your comics in comic shops?” I loved that. We were probably fortunate enough that these were like-minded people: that they wanted to support young folk. That they could see earnest, young folk trying to do something they believed in, maybe. And, it wasn’t large amounts of money, and, sometimes, in-kind contributions…
MARRS: …I painted pictures of the front of their premises or invented a record label for F&J and we printed them in the back of the Strange Weather Lately books.
CHALMERS: I think, maybe, there was a sort of feeling in the community, that a lot of music was happening, and a lot of people knew each other. I guess there was a scene.
MARRS: I guess with Nice ’n’ Sleazy’s and The 13th Note, these were places we hung out in, and there was the connection with your brother and sister who were in bands, and all our friends were playing there all the time, I guess at first we were going out...
CHALMERS: Ex-Cathedra and Pink Cross, and there were also other bands like Mogwai, The PH Family, The Poison Sisters. Flotsam and Jetsam along with The 13th Note produced the Club Beetroot series of singles. And there were other creative people about, Glasgow was quite a vibrant place -- and it still is. I don’t know if we realized at that time that we were involved or part of that, as such, it certainly didn’t feel like a scene.
MARRS: I don’t think we did.
CHALMERS: No. I think, maybe, the whole point was we were just happy doing what we were doing, and that gave us a sort of, not self-confidence in any way, but momentum.