The Metaphrog Interview

LEES: Right. I don’t know if for American creators it had more urgency, when something like that happens in your own country. But as a foreigner, you maybe can be a bit more distanced — I mean, awful things happen in other countries every day and we don’t write comics about them.

CHALMERS: I think some people approached it slightly more surreally, but after a while it seemed like the same story. I think there were a few media filtrations of that event, and again it’s a sort of mythologizing, almost, I always felt. We were in America at the time, and the show we were going to go to, SPX, didn’t happen, it was cancelled. So the people at Big Planet Comics very kindly gave us a grant, the Mark Feldman Award, a travel grant which would normally have gone to the Hernandez Brothers that year.

MARRS: That’s right, because they couldn’t travel.

CHALMERS: Because the air space was closed at that point. They really were kind to do that, because they were under no obligation... I feel a lot of sympathy and empathy for the people in the comic industry, you can see a sense of community — a degree of caring — which you might not find in other businesses. That was right at the time, because the world changed after that. The economy was flattened, for one thing. Not that everything has to do with money, but you can see quite a lot of changes; paranoia, really came into fashion.

LEES: One of the things that’s really marked yours out as being different from a lot of the stories in that anthology was the cynicism, you were saying you felt you couldn’t comment, because you didn’t know who to blame yet. Then, a couple of years later, you did the Warburger piece for Stripburger, [Laughter] and there was no doubt who you were blaming at that point. How did your political ideas or your perspective on the world change in the intervening years?

MARRS: You can only really understand these types of events with hindsight, when you can more easily put it all in perspective, and historical context. These stories we wrote at the time and were immediate responses if you like.

CHALMERS: I think with the Warburger thing, it’s a much angrier story, it’s a much more bilious story. It’s not a pleasant thing to read, it wasn’t a pleasant thing to draw; you had your teeth clenched for two weeks, or something.

MARRS: No. I don’t think I would do it now, actually.

CHALMERS: No. [Laughs.] Growing up I listened to punk and bands like Crass, not constantly, but I’m very aware of acerbic, politicized rage, and I’m not sure it’s the best response always; but, sometimes I think there’s a place for it, definitely. Especially, if there’s complacency, I think that if people are just saying, “Oh, this is terrible,” that’s true, but where does your thinking end? I don’t want to point fingers and I never intended to point fingers with either story, I just think there’s a sort of crassness about what was happening. I mean, when you go to war, that’s quite a serious thing to do. So we approached it from an anti-war position, from a humanist point of view. Originally, the specification for this short story was quite different: lost or forgotten aspects of war.

LEES: Aye, it just struck me as maybe now that Europe had got dragged into the whole bloody mess, that you felt that rage more acutely than before. The message was quite clear to me. I think it’s probably the darkest story you’ve ever done. Even though it has the cartoonish sheen of Louis, it’s done in a very grotesque and nightmarish way that Louis never even touches; it was quite disturbing.

MARRS: Yeah, I’m not sure I’m really that comfortable doing political stuff

CHALMERS: I think, like I said earlier, everything’s political. Even if you choose not to, you are actually being political. It’s just easier — it’s easier to say nothing.

MARRS: Yeah, generally I feel I don’t know enough about the subject to be authoritative about it.

LEES: And yet, Louis seems to be quite a politically charged creation.

CHALMERS: I think when you put a story out into the world you’re sowing seeds and you’re basically generating an awful lot of clever and careful readers, or reader/authors. People will interpret things based on their own experience — and I don’t mean limited experience, I just mean that folk project, illuminate and mirror what they see in the world. That’s not to say it’s a facile interpretation — it’s one interpretation — whereas if you launch a visceral attack as a response it’s not effective, particularly.

LEES: …because it’s one-dimensional.

CHALMERS : Yeah, exactly. I think sublimating the ideas — for me, anyway — is much more effective. It’s not that I don’t like to do political stuff, it’s that I prefer to let somebody else see it. Rather than spell it out as a grotesque or something like that. The new Louis: Night Salad book is very personal, but it’s obviously more fantastical. It has more sadness in it, but it’s uplifting — or, we hope anyway.

LEES: It’s the only Louis book that’s got a happy ending, so there’s always that. It’s not just Louis being thwarted at the end again and again and again. [Marrs laughs]

CHALMERS: I think if you look at the end of The Clown’s Last Words, Louis is dancing and he’s quite happy. He’s made his game and he’s had the satisfaction of being involved in something, even though it didn’t work out quite the way he expected. He saved the day, although he doesn’t get the credit for it. That’s an allegorical story, the basis of it’s the twin towers being attacked — because we were in America when it happened and we sublimated it into the story.

LEES: I was going to ask, if that was where the ending of that book came from.

CHALMERS: Yeah, the roller coaster’s basically a metaphor, but the story of Louis: The Clown’s Last Words looks more at the role of the artist in society and the book also explores the way the entertainment industry has changed over time. We probably prefer to deal with bigger questions — I don’t mean that we’re big question dealers or something like that — but basically that’s what interests us more. Mostly, you can’t get away from the fact that you’re writing about your own life. It’s pretty much a truth. You can try and camouflage it as much as you like — in fact, the more you camouflage it, the less you manage and the more obvious it becomes. The Louis book, The Clown’s Last Words does have a fairly ambiguous ending. It’s obviously not happy that everybody gets caught up in an explosion. [Laughter] Yeah, I think you’re right there! But the new Louis book is sad that it wouldn’t seem right to have anything worse happen. I think it would have been ill-judged, you know. It’s got enough sadness, there’s enough pathos. To have a sad ending on top of that, you know, what are you trying to do?

LEES: Yeah, just make weans cry!

CHALMERS: The lady reviewer at The Herald asked us if we’d set out to make the children cry, when we did Louis: Red Letter Day at the time. But I see what she meant, though, because she had kids and she felt that it would upset them because children should have a happy ending.

LEES: I think that’s the distinction between people who write truly and those who write to pander to an audience — or a perceived audience, anyway. I can remember when I was younger and reading even The Broons, Oor Wullie, The Beano, and The Dandy — some of the stuff in there was very dark. The characters were always living in fear somewhat, threatened by authoritarian figures, with corporal punishment and “demon whackers” waiting for them. Then, when you look at the other end with shameless cash-ins from celebrities who write books “for children” — I was going to mention Geri Halliwell, but Rian Hughes illustrated those books and he actually did a really nice job [Laughter]. But you know the type of book — it’s just lots of happy adventures with paper thin characters who stop and smell the flowers and the biggest problem is deciding what kind of jam to put on their sandwiches. I think Louis definitely comes from the former tradition, even though it may look on the surface like the latter.

CHALMERS: Aye, cheers. We saw someone stop and smell the flowers the other day [Laughter]. I said to them, “It’s nice to stop and smell the flowers sometimes,” and she said, “I think so.” [Laughter] She was an elderly woman, but it’s funny that. But, aye, I see what you’re saying. Inauthenticity — what’s the point? It’s a serious as your life — is that what you want people to hear; to see or read? You’ve got a choice. I think it’s quite easy to detect — you’ve got a bullshit detector — even quite quickly. I think reading random paragraphs of some prose stuff, you know if it’s authentic or not. You maybe don’t know why, but you can sense it.

LEES: Children especially — wasn’t it Hemingway that wrote that line about kids having an inbuilt bullshit detector? If you’re actually living in that realm of experience, you don’t need people lying to you and telling you how things should be. Escapism’s all well and good, but when you’re able to connect with a text, or recognize yourself in it — that’s hard to fake. It even goes beyond the words on the page.

CHALMERS: Aye, some of the books that we talked about before, like Archie Hind or Kelman, there’s an authenticity and there’s craft, a lot of craft, but that doesn’t make it any less authentic. I mean, people’s viscera all look much the same, doesn’t it, but if you craft it and try to create something out of it, then you’re getting somewhere.

LEES: Before we go on to talk about the new book a little bit more, I wanted to ask you how you go about publishing. You’ve been pretty brave throughout your career in that you’ve never worked with a publisher and you’ve always done things by yourselves. Why is that? Was the intention that you would always have that DIY attitude and aesthetic, that no-one else would impede on your vision, or has it just worked out that way?

MARRS: I think it just worked out that way.

CHALMERS: I don’t see how you’ve got any choice. We spoke to Denis Kitchen at the first Angoulême we went to back in 1998 and asked his advice — just chatted with him, he’s a lovely guy. He said that, in our position, he didn’t really see that we had much choice, because what’s the alternative? The alternative is to solicit a publisher and wait and hope. I don’t know why, but we were just propelled to bring the thing out. I come from a background of punk and DIY — there was no shame in bringing something out independently for me.

MARRS: I blame him [laughs]

CHALMERS: I don’t know how brave it is, I mean, it’s like people have said, “You’ve made a brave choice because you don’t own a washing machine or a car.” I don’t see that as brave because you’re not working a 9-to-5 job; I would find that suffocating — a tie to me is like a noose.

MARRS: Yeah, me too. We actually end up working more like from 7 to 7. [Laughter]

CHALMERS: The bravery is illusory because I think, basically, we’ve made life choices, quite selfishly. They suit what we’ve wanted to do and having the momentum that Diamond allowed us, we’ve not taken our livelihood and put it in jeopardy. We’ve always managed; we’ve always tried something — we’ve been lucky to have been supported in the past by, say, the local community or the Scottish Arts Council. It’s not massive amounts of money by any manner of means, compared to what governments give out every day to, say, the banks. I don’t think that money matters that much, though — not compared to personal happiness or satisfaction, the satisfaction of doing something that you care about. These things pale in comparison to the other considerations, which are more fundamental.