The Metaphrog Interview

LEES: The idea of putting extra content with your book is something that was quite forward-thinking. I mean, Dreams Never Die came out in, what, 2004? And again, at the Dundee Literary Festival, there was a lot of discussion about how authors and publishers can add value to a publication as we move into an increasingly post-print world. When we’ve all got devices that can just download books directly off the Internet and, just like music, you can do it for free if you choose. So how do you make it worth people’s while to buy into the book? There was talk of putting together packages and iPhone applications for your book. For example, the new Nick Cave book has got an iPhone application that has videos of Nick Cave reading the novel and he and Warren Ellis — that’s the musician, not the comic writer — did a soundtrack for it.

CHALMERS: Have you heard The Dirty Three?

LEES: Yeah, not an awful lot of their work, I’ve got one album — the one with the mermaid on the cover. I mean, Warren Ellis is a fantastic musician and that stripped-down, post-rock sound is just gorgeous. Totally ahead of their time as well, and you can hear that same sound imitated by a lot of the Constellation bands.

CHALMERS: Oh, yeah, it’s beautiful. No, I can see that you have to be — obviously we wouldn’t have done the animation if we hadn’t had some kind of awareness, whether it was subliminal or subconscious, that you’re not getting in touch with very many people when you bring out a book. And also the idea of cross-fertilizing — not just liking music — graphic novels, comics can be vibrant, they can be culturally significant in the way that a single could be when I was young. It can touch people’s hearts. OK, you might not listen to the tune, you might just look at the pictures in a cursory manner, but it communicates something. And I don’t even think there’ll be iPhone apps in 25 minutes — d’you know what I mean? We’re living in an accelerated culture and perhaps it’s more visionary to look at the possibilities of, I don’t know, total mind control! [Laughter] It’s not a laughing matter, though, is it? Because people are telling you what to do more and more, in a more and more sophisticated way. Aye, OK, you might exercise some kind of freedom of choice, but you’ve got to step back sometimes and think, “What the hell have I done, and what the hell am I doing?” Have you seen the Dead Kennedys’ lost sessions on YouTube?


CHALMERS: It rocks. It’s just great. He hits the drums really hard, you know? There’s a lot of tracks off of In God We Trust on it, but in a much more raw and vital form… if that’s possible! You get the sense that they were quite good, chemically, together. You [to Marrs] were just watching an interview with somebody like Nabokov or somebody — you know, the world’s there, you can go an find out who, what, when, why quite quickly with a wee bit of thinking and a wee bit of filtering, but it’s at your fingertips.

LEES: It’s just like when we were talking earlier, wondering when Art Spiegelman was born. Twenty years ago, we’d still be sitting around, wondering how we’d figure that out, but now—

CHALMERS: Now you put the computer on. He was a ‘60s underground cartoonist, eh? So, he’d maybe be 20 in the early ‘60s. He traveled about in a van, I remember reading, you know like — not like a hippy, I don’t know if he’d label himself a hippy — I don’t think he was taking drugs, I think he had quite a fragile mental state.

LEES: Oh, yeah, that Breakdowns book that he did, he was quite open about that fact in there.

CHALMERS: I’m just thinking even of Maus, he incorporates the "Prisoner of Hell-Planet" story. That was a very powerful book. Brilliant. It’s a shame that there’s so few graphic novels that are put forward as examples. It’ll get better, though, in five years it’ll get better.

LEES: Yeah, and in a way, I don’t think that Maus is the best introduction to graphic novels at all. Especially being non-fiction, it’s quite— Well… I think it did open the floodgates for a whole lot of sub-par autobiographical cartoonists to stake a claim at being “literary” when, really, it was like comparing Elie Wiesel to fucking Russell Brand’s Booky Wook. But it was being held up by the mainstream press as pretty much the only “grown up” comic at the time.

MARRS: It also reflects what’s going on in the literary world, with the misery memoirs and so on.

LEES: Oh god, yeah, A Child Called It and A Million Little Pieces and their ilk. What were we saying earlier about inauthenticity?

CHALMERS: Aye, because it’s a not a genre, graphic novels, is it? The genre’s the Holocaust memoir, and it was the first one to deal with the second generation. So, for that reason alone, it’s an interesting book. I think he’s deployed the possibilities of the comic form extremely well, but it’s still quite dark and quite dense. As you said, it’s not an ideal introduction to the form. I think the writing, though, is quite authentic and pleasant.

LEES: It’s a great book, I just dislike the way it’s been treated, almost as an artifact — I think that’s done more harm than good — but as a work of literature, it’s great. It’s the same thing that’s happened with Watchmen.

CHALMERS: Well, the thing is that, to you [to Marrs], Watchmen looks like a superhero comic and, in a sense, that’s what it’s playing with since the characters have superpowers and so forth, but it’s saying a lot more. Which is almost saying that the superhero genre does an awful lot less!

LEES: Well, I think it does — with a very few exceptions — and I think that was why it was given such an enthusiastic reception. I can remember being at uni, and I had read Watchmen when I was 11 or so, and I picked up again since people had been raving about it, and after reading it again, I just thought — what’s the big deal? It was dealing with big ideas and universal themes, but not in a way that was above what was being done and had been done in prose literature. It was only when you looked at what was going on in other superhero stories of the time, you realized that they were filled with one-dimensional characters and pretty awful storytelling... and this was even before the Todd Macfarlanes and Rob Liefelds came along and made things even worse.

CHALMERS: I think looking at the possibilities of a medium, the things that people like Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby and Bernie Krigstein did, you wouldn’t — or I probably wouldn’t have known these people by name as a child, if I ever looked at a Spider-Man comic — I’ve got nothing against them, I admire them as creators, they’re masters of the medium, but they didn’t hold a fascination for me in obviously the way they do for some people. You’ve got a kind of storytelling, like Kirby was a great storyteller, visually, he tells his stories very well. And he didn’t care whether people read them or not, was the impression I got, he was telling them for the sheer love of telling stories visually. So there are qualities, I think, one could argue, but then you could be disparaging about the whole bloody mess, because it’s second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth-generation copies — or parodies — of something that was originally quite vital. People don’t care now, they don’t care much for history — and I don’t mean that in a sort-of Sam Cooke way [Lees laughs] — they don’t care much about history which has gone the same way as knowledge, in a sense, because it’s so there [snaps fingers] and maybe that’s both a good and a bad thing, but it still changes the way people respect things. They’re not quite as willing to give things respect, historically, in their context. It’s quite a difficult way to think because “now” is so appealing, eh? It’s like, “Searching for the Now”, that Fall song, you’ve got to wonder what that really means now. We’re looking at the world quite differently, there’s so many distractions, so many bombardments on people, you’re wondering where things are going to go or what’s going to happen. It’s easy to say, “These are the problems,” but you’ve got to fight them. I mean, Kirby was fighting against the stifling, overbearing way that things were done.

LEES: Well, he had seen it all, he’d been there from the late '30s right through to the early '80s and had seen the whole industry shift.

CHALMERS: There was the Comics Code as well, where you had to have your comics checked and censored.

LEES: In case you were corrupting the youth [Laughter] There was a great book written about that called The 10 Cent Plague about the early years of the comics industry and what happened as a result of Wertham and the Comics Code. It’s a fascinating read… but we’re getting carried away here.

The new book, then! [Laughter] It’s been some time in germination. I can remember seeing the two of you talk in 2008 at the National Library and you seemed to give the impression that Louis: Night Salad was almost done and now here we are in 2010 and it’s just complete. So, what’s happened in the interim?

CHALMERS: We’ve been distracted by several things. Some of them were really good and some of them weren’t so good, like my dad dying wasn’t a good one and my mum getting put in hospital wasn’t a good one either. I don’t want to overplay that, obviously, because life goes on, you’ve got to live a life. You can’t just line your life up and write your books and have fun publishing your books. But, we have done a lot of other positive stuff, like being hospitalized! [Laughter] We’ve been really busy, we’ve been in-demand. People have wanted to listen to us talking, which is fucking weird. You know, cartoonists have a solitary kind of existence, so when you open them up, you’re stuck for hours. [Laughter]

LEES: Never waste the opportunity of a captive audience!

CHALMERS: We’ve had a lot of requests for workshops and talks but because neither of us are big extroverts, really, we have had to come up with this multi — I hate the term “multimedia,” it just seems really strange to me — but the way comics are, it won’t just suffice to have someone stand up and talk about them. People are always interested in seeing how comics work because our culture’s become much more visual. We’ve been doing a lot more of going to literary festivals but I think when we did the National Library thing, we were quite proud. It’s quite a big deal, even though I know there probably weren’t that many people listening to us. It’s quite strange that you’re asked — it’s nice, you know — and we made an effort. We probably produced about 15 pages of answers for the lady so that she was prepared and we were prepared for her questions on the night.

MARRS: So we’ve done a tone of talks and workshops; the Edwin Morgan comic adaptation as well.

LEES: Which was pretty fantastic. Did that come about just because of your connection to the Arts Council, that you were their go-to people for comics?

MARRS: No, it came from a different direction. It was Duncan Jones who works at what’s called the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, he’s the general manager, and they publish Scottish literature, contemporary and classic, as well as anthologies like New Writing Scotland. But, they’ve got a lot of different strings — it’s two people, basically, Duncan and Margaret Renton that run it, do a lot of hard work and keep that going. It was just happenstance again.

MARRS: They just contacted us out of the blue, really.

LEES: Was it mostly for education — like schools and libraries — that you were doing talks?

CHALMERS: Schools, libraries, and literary festivals…and the Edinburgh Festival, which is quite prestigious, I suppose, but so big that you’re there, but—

MARRS: You’re a drop in the ocean.

CHALMERS: Well, we’re all kind of drops in the ocean, but in a nice way, I suppose. But yeah, a lot of education, but comics are an educational tool and that’s quite funny. Of course they are — just to get kids opening books, reluctant readers or children with behavioral difficulties and emotional issues and we’d talk to them about how they can maybe express their life frustrations and get it out their system by drawing or telling a story rather than by taking drugs and drinking — even though I’m sure they will do that, but at least you’re giving them a pointer or — I hate to say it — a positive role model.

MARRS: A cartoonist, oh yeah, great! [Laughter]

CHALMERS: Yeah, very diverse places, right across the educational spectrum: from the tougher schemes to quite affluent schools. We’ve tried to tie it in to visiting literary festivals and not slowing down our own work too much, but we also reworked a lot of the book in a way that we’ve never done before. Quite positive ways: just to try and strengthen the storytelling, in terms of the usage of language and the layout of the pages. It’s very different from the nine-panel grid rhythm this time. Enough to see that there’s more going on.

MARRS: I think I must have repainted about a third of the book as well. I did pages and then re-did them. Some of them I did even three times before I was happy with them. So that obviously took ages.

LEES: And the whole thing is hand-painted?


LEES: One thing I noticed was that the colors in this one are just so much bolder and richer than the first couple of Louis books.

MARRS: That’s because I have painted it in a different medium, the first books were painted in gouache; the later ones are painted in acrylic inks.

CHALMERS: One other thing we did was with, I think, one of your former colleagues, Michael Stephenson, which was for teachers, a CPD [Continuing Professional Development] evening.

LEES: That’s right: I worked with Michael back in Livingston.

CHALMERS: That was very educational, actually [Lees laughs] and we made little VoiceThreads, that’s like miniature talking PowerPoints to go with it.