The Metaphrog Interview

LEES: It was a strange time for Glasgow, it had gone from being European City of Culture in 1990, and having this huge, global spotlight put on it, and then, as you said, the rest of the 90s were real, dark times in the city: The collapse of industry, a recession, a lot of people feeling lost. You captured that really well in Strange Weather Lately, just in the way Martin perceives the world around him becoming ever more bizarre and threatening. It also goes back to that “Glasgow condition,” the expectation of producing something great, which never arrives. Instead, it descends into something completely different; and eventually, at the end, everything just fades away to nothing.

CHALMERS: The Glasgow condition. That’s good! Perhaps returning to the city after over a year away and having lived in the West End then the East End and now the South Side I had an unusual perspective on the place. Glasgow like any big, industrial city is a pretty rough place, and at that time the drug culture had maybe made a paradigm shift with the influx of cheap heroin a few years previously and with the raves and illegal parties, the Criminal Justice Bill. Writing Strange Weather Lately in Glasgow was definitely an attempt to capture a sense of the beauty and elegance that goes along with urban decay but I think there was also a sense of despair and possibly frustration. The politics of the eighties, the Poll Tax, the cuts, axes falling everywhere, obviously these things affect poorer areas very badly and on top of all that seeing the lack of investment in manufacturing or in research and development, the growing unemployment and all the baffling ways the government attempt to cover up the reality of things, like the massaging of unemployment statistics, with various meaningless training schemes, and that’s a useful expression, that’s a misnomer really… In a sense all of that could be sublimated into the story, it serves as the background for many of the ideas, the social realism set against an angry surrealism.

I think I hadn’t consciously thought about it as being a “Glasgow condition,” more the “human condition;” and that idea of everything fading away is quite supernatural, that’s quite strange, in actual fact, now that I think back on it.

MARRS: How on earth did we think of that? [Marrs laughs]

CHALMERS: Yeah. Well, I think the loss of distinction, the way things blur, and everybody must recognize that, whether it’s in memory or whether it’s in expectation, that’s part of being alive. There was also the mathematical idea of exponential decay in the things fading away, things never quite ending. As for capturing the Glasgow condition: I don’t think we’d realized that’s what we were doing, that it would be effective in that way, but you can’t realize. At that time, we just did it, we just sort of did it, we were propelled by some crazy momentum; piss-fueled, wasn’t it, that fucking dog...? [Laughter] Lucky! Lucky, to die in his own piss on a mattress. It really…

LEES: This is your downstairs neighbor with all the pets?

CHALMERS: Ah, yeah. We had an old lady as our downstairs neighbor and she had an old dog, called Lucky, that was dying in his own piss on a mattress, and the fumes would come up, and not infrequently there would be, well, bad smells basically. But it didn’t always stink of urine, even when it was in the air. I remember writing Strange Weather Lately through that: I thought I had hay-fever, like the Fonz -- it was “heeey” all the time. [Lees laughs] Because my eyes were itching, nipping and burning. We eventually began burning lemongrass to neutralize the alkali and the smell which was marvelous, a relief.

LEES: Did she eventually leave? It would be awful to think of that being part of your creative mojo — the stench of dogs.

MARRS: Yeah, she’s left now and the dog did pass away too.

CHALMERS: Sometimes we get a smell in the tenement close: ghost toast.

LEES: There are some less-than-savory aspects to Glasgow and a lot of them make their way into Strange Weather Lately. When you did The Maze, was that almost like a holiday — getting away to the sun after 12 issues of Glaswegian gloom?

CHALMERS: The Maze actually came between Strange Weather Lately the anthology and the longer Strange Weather Lately story arc. I think the gap makes more sense then, if you look at it, it’s again us experimenting, basically doing something more straightforward, trying to do something almost like a noir, like a thriller; something where the art style, the black and white, the contrast, tied in with the light and shadow of the story. If you look closely at it, there’s more fuckery going on, there’s more strangeness. The myths are all twisted around, there’s a degree of shifting in the reality, less obviously so than in Strange Weather Lately.

A page from The Maze.

LEES: That makes sense, since Strange Weather Lately did develop a bit of a noir strand to the story as well. The idea of the character who’s under continual surveillance and is himself a reflection of the play that Martin’s involved in — that’s very reminiscent of Paul Auster’s detective stories in the subversion of the genre. In fact, I think you subvert just about every genre you touch in that story. Was this just part of the experimentation you spoke of before, or was it something more than that?

CHALMERS: A degree of experimentation probably comes from the desire to produce something new. I think when we did Strange Weather Lately, we’d settled on our obsessions, because they still appear in Louis — Red Letter Day.

LEES: Yeah, absolutely. Even though the art is wildly different, there’s a definite Metaphrog voice in all your work.

CHALMERS: These things, our preoccupations; I don’t know why, I couldn’t say why, I couldn’t honestly say why that’s the case.

LEES: It seemed that in the anthology of Strange Weather Lately, the first issue, there was a lot of different art styles you were trying out, to find something that fit the story; and also you went on to do something that was very photo-realistic and referenced from real-world locations. The Maze is a lot more free-form, a lot looser, certainly the backgrounds were very sparse, open, and free. Was the feeling you got when you visited Crete, was that a reflection of the setting, or was that more a reflection of the story?

MARRS: I think a mixture of both. The short stories we did for the first Strange Weather Lately anthology were basically just, yeah, trying out different styles, and trying basically to learn how to make comics via the short story form, because we thought it was a good way to, not experiment…

CHALMERS: …Exercise.

MARRS: …yeah, exercise, that’s right. And The Maze may have been another attempt at an exercise, trying to tell a story in a long-story form. And I thought that using a strong contrast between the black and white was a good way of expressing a sunny kind of place. If I wasn’t going to be able to work in color -- because obviously it was expensive at that time -- then if I was going to work in black and white then the strong contrast with black inks was the best way to do that, I thought. I guess, because it was noir that again works on that level as well.

LEES: Right. Your artwork in The Maze is reminiscent of Gilbert Hernandez — he made those sun-scorched landscapes basically a trademark of his work, again using stark black and white.

MARRS: It could be, though not intentionally.

CHALMERS: I think each of the short stories we approached as a challenge, to try and find a style that suited them, in every piece. It’s not until we did the 12-page story in Strange Weather Lately #1, the longer story, that we realized how much we like working in the longer form. The little surreal elements in The Maze are set against a nasty social-realism. It was quite kind of cathartic: storytelling, in a way, is quite cathartic. You do get things out of your system, things that have been bugging you, or things that have happened to people you care about; and you wonder how you can express this, in a way. I don’t think it’s all light and air, because there’s a lot of nastiness: the gangster figures. Probably more like Glasgow gangsters, kind of stuff, like acid and giving somebody acid, which certainly isn’t a very pleasant thing to do… I do feel that we probably worked on quite dark stuff at that point, you know?

MARRS: Yeah.

CHALMERS: Although we were in Crete, it was a kind of mythical island. Wherever it was probably has more to do with your head space, with where your head’s at, or what’s happening in your life.