The Metaphrog Interview

LEES: I was meaning to ask about working with the Arts Council, actually. Your book Louis: The Clown’s Last Words was the first graphic novel ever to be funded by them. What has their support been like? Have they imposed any limitations on you, or have you been able to do your own thing?

MARRS: They’ve been extremely supportive of everything. We have never heard of them imposing any limitations on any artist or writer. Initially, we always dealt with a literary development officer at the Arts Council, and they would advise us.

CHALMERS: They would provide advice, advocacy and support and are very obviously people who care about books. But they don’t decide whether or not you will receive funding. An independent body of assessors would look at every application and consider each one on merit and then report back to the arts council.

MARRS: The application form was the same for all art forms. The funding process is relatively straightforward and each application is considered uniquely.

CHALMERS: And really the Arts Council (and this applied all across the UK), has to be independent or neutral in that sense and acting as mediators.

CHALMERS: One of the stipulations of being awarded a grant is that the book has to present a risk. For example, a 92-page book about a suicidal clown…for kids, had possibly an element of risk. [Lees laughs]

MARRS: We applied for funding for the first Louis book, Louis: Red Letter Day, to the Scottish Arts Council but were unsuccessful.

We’ve never relied on them, though. I mean, we’d never expect the Arts Council to help us every single time. It is a help, it’s a massive help. I don’t think we’d have found it possible to do a lot of the things we’ve done without that.

LEES: The closest you came to working with a publisher was when you worked with Fat Cat on Louis: Dreams Never Die, which you collaborated on with hey and múm, who provided a soundtrack for the book. How did that all come about? Were these bands that you admired, or were they fans of yours?

MARRS: It started with you being in [Glasgow record store] Rub-a-Dub, I think.

CHALMERS: That’s right, I found a single — I think there was only like 50 or 100, a really, unusually small-run — but I like records and music and I listened to that one a lot. Eventually I just contacted him and said, “Look, would you be interested in adapting one of your songs to suit the style of our books?” The song was “Dreams Never Die” and he made it sound more in the style of the Louis’ world. He just thought it would be better to have the project be simple: have the book, one song and maybe a remix. So, he looks for people to remix it and it’s harder than he thought it might be, but then he asked múm and they said, “Well, we like Louis: Red Letter Day,” so it made it a lot easier. Not only did they like Red Letter Day, but it happened to be that they were on a record label, Fat Cat, that we’d built a relationship with back in 1996 when we brought out our first comic. I think the first Fat Cat record is probably from ’97 or ’96, so we got in touch with them right from the very start. [Chalmers goes hunting for a record] The early Fat Cat 12”s we really liked because it was quite unusual music and we could see a kindred spirit.

LEES: So, how did you build up that relationship? Was it just through advertising?

CHALMERS: Eh, no, we just went to visit them once in London. We just phoned them up and talked to them, saying, “You’re bringing out great records,” you know? We didn’t have the first EP, since it wasn’t commercially available, so they just sent us one up and we chatted with them and they were just dead nice, they were just great people. Dead passionate. One of the guys is coming from the background of doing a fanzine called Obsessive Eye — a really smart fanzine about under-listened-to music and strange music — and the other guys were from a shop background, they ran a great shop — Björk was a customer — so they had a smart clientele and the shop was highly respected. So the label generated respect. The relationship developed through a love of music, it was just a natural thing.

MARRS: We sent them our books —

CHALMERS: Aye, and we went to visit them and brought them some more of our comics. So when múm turned out to be on their label, it was a good happenstance. It was a good coincidence, the fact that hey was involved with making records. He cuts a lot of the — not Basic Channel, because that’s a bit older — but other technical techno records.

LEES: Oh, does he work at Dub Plates and Mastering?


LEES: Aaah, right, so it would be the Tresor stuff he was working on.

CHALMERS: Aye, there you are, so you’re into your music as well. He worked there after Stefan Betke.

LEES: Oh, Pole — right.

MARRS: Yeah, so múm at that time were based in Iceland and Berlin, but they took the song — they recorded their version in a wee lighthouse —

LEES: Yeah, that was their studio at the time: they recorded their third album there.

MARRS: Then they took it all round the world with them on tour and sent it back.

CHALMERS: It was beautiful, too, very ethereal. I heard that Eric Reynolds said that he listened to it — I don’t know if you listened to it — but the folk in the office listened to it all the time.

LEES: Oh, no — that’s well before my time at Fantagraphics.

CHALMERS: Ah, they were saying that had it on in the in-house jukebox. There’s a blue vinyl one, have you seen that?

LEES: I have, but I don’t have it, since I don’t have a turntable anymore — I had to leave it behind when I moved overseas, I’m sad to say.

Another thing that was part of the Dreams Never Die project was the animation. Was that something that you’d held an interest in before, Sandra, or was it another experiment that you were trying out?

MARRS: No, I actually tried to get into an animation school before coming over here… and failed! [Marrs laughs] But, yeah, we thought that having a Louis animation would be great and it was actually a great experience just to start to see the character become animated on the screen.

CHALMERS: It took Sandra five months!

MARRS: And I ended up with a wrist injury.

Sketchbook characters.

LEES: So did you draw it totally by hand? Or was it computer-assisted?

MARRS: It was drawn with a tablet, so it was drawn on the computer by hand, but not on paper or—

CHALMERS: With a very small amount of morphing.

MARRS: Yeah, I hardly did any morphing because, well, first of all, I didn’t know how to use the Flash package — I was learning as I was doing it — and I thought it would be simpler to do each frame on its own, instead of morphing too many complex shapes. So, it took a hell of a long time! I don’t think I’d do it again, because it was really time consuming just for a couple of minutes of animation. But I’m glad I had the luxury of having the time to do that, though. I’m glad that it’s done.

CHALMERS: My only contribution was to work out the rhythm, the breakdown of the sequence, for the scenes with Louis working.

CHALMERS: Yeah, because Sandra came up with a basic narrative. It’s really simple, but it works really well. It’s a distillation of all the elements — the essence of the first Louis book, and of the world of the books in general. I don’t know what I was doing — what was I doing while you were working on that?

MARRS: I don’t remember. [Laughter] Oh, you were writing the book, actually! [Laughter]

CHALMERS: That’s right, because you made the animation before the book was written. It actually affected the way you painted it, the style changed. So, it was a different working method.