The Metaphrog Interview

LEES: Are those the things that are on your website, where you talk through Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy’s Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde and stuff?

CHALMERS: Yeah. The reason they’re so sparse is because it’s done in one take, and we didn’t have time to pause because it’s all supposed to be one “thread” — one continuous stream.

MARRS: Yeah, and there was supposed to be a film made of the talk that we did, but it didn’t work out. So afterwards, they asked us to do those online threads.

CHALMERS: What we also did was a funny thing: it was a virtual conference with 24 schools. It was weird.

LEES: Oh, was this the Glow thing? Oh god, that used to be my job, to work on Glow.

CHALMERS: It was your job?

LEES: Yeah, I did it for West Lothian Council.

CHALMERS: That must have been hard-going, because it’s difficult for people — it’s so transient, but yet quite high-powered. We had three people sitting on our right, but that was the only people we were in contact with and I didn’t realize it, but I was actually shaking and sweating and I felt that I wasn’t getting the chemistry, I wasn’t getting the response of being with a human being. It was weird. But it went well, they said it was the best Glow they’d ever had, that we’d pushed the limits of the technology because it was talky, sing-y, dance-y with a visualizer. They used a visualizer to show Sandra drawing, and it was quite good. The kids got really into it, and we got responses which were then messengered in by the teachers. You could see the kids grinning and hear the response — virtually — so it was a bit removed: it was a bit mediated and a bit strange.

LEES: I don’t think the technology is quite perfect, yet, but I think in terms of where they’re trying to take education and make these experiences available, that every kid in Scotland, potentially, could have tuned into that and not just watched, but shared in the experience.

CHALMERS: Well, it has to be done like that, otherwise you’re losing ground on technology, rather than gaining ground and gaining educated children. Kids have got computers and they love to go on the computers — as soon as you introduce the computer, they’re lighting up — they don’t want to know about learning in the ways that we had to do it. I sound like an old fart.

We did another thing recently where we helped kids think about "Tam O’Shanter" and maybe how to make a comic from "Tam O’Shanter", the Robert Burns poem, and I would have assumed that the kids would have read the poem before we went to talk to them about it. [Lees laughs] Did you, having had an educational background, just laugh there?

LEES: Aye, just try getting a bunch of 13-year-olds to read a poem that takes half an hour.

MARRS: I think it’s very hard for a lot of them to read it, as well.

LEES: Of course, because it’s written in a Scots vernacular that isn’t relevant to their experience and it’s thick with abstract imagery, which is a huge hurdle for most kids to get over, even though the story of the poem is a brilliant romp.

CHALMERS: There’s also a slightly modernized version, like “But pleasures are like poppies spread” that’s been modernized — there’s dual editions of it where Burns has been updated slightly. But I know what you’re saying. It is a great poem — it’s visual —

LEES: There’s so much great stuff in it and kids genuinely enjoy it, once you’ve penetrated the barriers of: this is poetry — snore — and this is long — snore — and it’s written in a language that’s unfamiliar —

CHALMERS: And it’s old — snore, snore!

LEES: Right, but once you get into it, there’s so much stuff — it’s funny, it’s risqué, there’s ghosts and witches and a brilliant chase, which is far more likely to get kids to love poetry than something like Wilfred Owen or John Stallworthy or that other depressing shit that I love, but bores them to tears. That’s not saying that it’s not deep — that section about the poppies and the snow is just beautiful — “A moment white, then melts forever.”

CHALMERS: Well, we were getting them to do a modern version of it, which was just brilliant, you know. “Bahookie,” they use the word “bahookie” which I’m always pleased to see in usage; and they brought it up to date, you know, he’s gonnae get a doin’ from the young team and all that kind of stuff. It was very personalized to their modern culture. They obviously had enjoyed reading the poem, taken something from it, thought about it, applied it — I even suggested to them that they didn’t need to draw things that are visually there all the time, they could use abstract things like poppies — and, sure enough, there’s a page with rainbows and poppies and the transient nature of life expressed. It was quite a nice pause in the middle of the otherwise modern adaptation. It’s uplifting to see —sometimes the kids come up and say something like, “I like Hitchcock and my friends think I’m weird.” It’s dead nice that.

MARRS: So, all these things took time and preparation in a very positive way and it’s made us more aware of what we’re doing.

LEES: That’s something I had wondered, because you work together — and have been working together for over 15 years now — and you’ve obviously built up an innate trust and synergy that you can work off. It almost seems like an unconscious process in terms of how you tell stories and bring the various elements together. So when you present, you have to talk through your craft and make it explicit. Do you ever have moments when you realize, “Oh aye, that’s what we’ve been doing all these years.”?

CHALMERS: It’s helped with things like today more than you’d imagine because we don’t come up with phrases like “heightening the dramatic juxtaposed contrast” or shit like that, you know! [Laughter] Nobody talks like that!

LEES: Except in The Comics Journal. [Laughter]

MARRS: So this book took us a lot longer than the others to make. It’s been good, but I don’t know if we want to take another five years to make another story. We’re working on the next one, but it’s not just our project, we’re working on some stuff for the Scottish Book Trust.

Another page from Night Salad.

LEES: The new Louis book is also the longest one you’ve produced, so it was obviously going to take a lot more time.

CHALMERS: That’s true, that’s what else we’ve doing, making the thing! Did you like it, did you enjoy it?

LEES: Yeah, I thought it was great. It’s a real step-up from the previous books and, like you said, it breaks away from the nine-panel grid but the way you’ve used that, I guess, freedom is fantastic. The panel where Louis is dreaming of the boat, I mean, that’s like something out of Winsor McKay — and obviously that’s a direct product of a lot of the story being a fever dream. I’m wondering what motivated that, though. You said that with the release through Fat Cat that you became more popular and gained more exposure, did that add a lot of pressure: that the next book had to be your best?

CHALMERS: I don’t know if it was more pressure so much as more possibilities. Obviously we never set out to make a bad book—

MARRS: But I think we were more conscious of it this time. As I said, I don’t think I’ve ever reworked a book as much as this one. Before, I was just concerned about getting the book done and out. Here, though, we just thought, “Let’s do it right, even if it means doing a scene three times.”

CHALMERS: Yeah, we kept finding ourselves saying, “Let’s do it the best we can and get the book right,” you know? Usually, as you say, we were pressurizing ourselves to try and get the work done, which isn’t always a good thing. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, though — you wouldn’t want to be afraid of hard work — but you miss out on learning that there are other approaches, other ways of treating it. Also, there are another couple of stories we’ve got — treatments for stories — that grew in series and parallel, so the original idea morphed and we realized that some of the ideas and tropes and complexities could be better sublimated and pushed into this book. It’s full of mirrors — the more I look at it, I’m thinking, “Bloody hell, that’s where all that backwards and forwards and mirror stuff went.” There was going to be another thread — I remember saying to our friend Jerry, when we were in the middle of doing it, that it was like weaving a tapestry because there were so many different threads and it was quite enjoyable to do that. But you’ve got to be careful that you don’t unravel — excuse the pun, you don’t need to transcribe that — you’ve got to watch your mental state because, to be honest, it’s a book about my dad dying, so it’s a book about death. It’s also a book about the power of books, so it works on a level that’s quite uplifting for a book that’s so miserable. Sex and death are probably the main themes of any pieces of literature, but for me to carry that around, it’s like — I don’t know if you’ve ever been constipated for six years? [Laughter] You can’t be — it’s not healthy — but what can you do if that’s your job? You can’t just go and hammer panels to get it out your system. You know, have half a pint of rum and prune juice. [Laughs.]

MARRS: It’s probably the book that’s evolved the most as we’ve been doing it as well, because we started on the basic idea in 2003, I think it was. That was when we did a load of short stories for different publishers and one of those was for the SPX anthology —

LEES: “The Round the World Rug Race”?

MARRS: Yeah, the theme was travel for that and we enjoyed doing that one so much at that point that we thought we’d do an entire Louis book based on that kind of idea. But then, when we came back and were about to start on it, your dad died. So, the entire thing shifted a little bit.

CHALMERS: Also, when you start writing a story, you don’t know where the path’s going exactly, and you start to see it as you go along it. And it didn’t make as much sense to you [to Marrs] as it did to me at one point and you were kind of panicking, but I said to you, “Look, it’s alright. There’s another story, I’ll just take that thread out and the rest of it’s strengthened.” We both brought more to it this time, because I did a lot more drawing and laying-out than I would ever do and you did more of the writing, saying, “This whole thread is just distracting from the main focus.” A big part of me, I think, was just afraid to tell a simple story like we did with Red Letter Day — it couldn’t be much simpler. OK, there’s a bit of deception going on with the aunt, but I think that’s pretty easy for people to interpret. The last story we learned that if you want people to notice things, you’d better spell it out, because a lot of people were like, “What a strange story…what’s he doing?”

LEES: “And why is Hitler there?” [Laughter]

MARRS: Or the Ku Klux Klan!

LEES: An all-ages graphic novel! [Laughter]

CHALMERS: Aye, it’s got the age of history, the age of reason, the age of scatology… [Laughter] Yeah, so sometimes the more you leave out, the more you’re putting in. That sounds really Zen. You can’t have something sad happening in the middle of a siege, really. That’s how these soap operas work — the rape in the middle of a siege. [Lees laughs] You know, the storyline just pulls itself apart. I think I was doing that, I think I was a wee bit afraid to let go, but actually it worked out to be the opposite. I’m a lot taller now, from not carrying it around anymore. Life does give you subject, you can’t ignore it and it’s not much fun, but we made it fun. Some of it’s quite funny. It’s a colossal relief when Louis is not alone anymore — maybe he’s going mentally ill, but he’s not quite so alone! I don’t know if other people reading will get that — it’s hard for us to gauge.

LEES: I think there’s that sense right the way through the Louis stories, that as soon as he finds out that he has an aunt, there’s suddenly this desperate vying for a connection with her. Just to have someone to talk to that isn’t just going to tell him, well, you have these problems, so watch telly and it’ll all be better. And even Clive at the bee farm gave him that kind of companionship. So it was quite strange to see the companion on the cover, since he’s an unknown, and then to see F.C. sidelined in the main narrative was quite, well, heartbreaking.

CHALMERS: F.C. represents quite a lot. I don’t think it’s worth trying to interpret it as the spirit-mind-body-soul thing, but you’ve got to feel for Louis who loves his friend and loss is a pretty hard thing to deal with. Somebody else who read it had to skip to the end to make sure that F.C. didn’t die and that’s testament to something. It’s quite a serious book, but we hope it’s quite light, as well.

LEES: It’s lots of fun, as well, there’re a lot of laughs in it and the bad guys get their comeuppance in a good way. It’s like a cartoon revenge.

CHALMERS: It’s not moralizing, but yeah, don’t be nasty to people. Don’t lie, don’t pick on them, don’t scrutinize them — all of these things — I suppose it is quite moral. I got ill like that — dizzy — I got an illness that made me so that I couldn’t walk, just like the characters in our book. Well, actually I couldn’t walk, I was just staggering about, wasn’t I? And then I’m deaf, which is funny, well, not funny but...

MARRS: We were on our way to Birmingham, to the convention there a couple of years ago. The morning we got up, after the first night party, to go to the festival and set up, John was just totally out of the game.

CHALMERS: I looked like somebody had cut my throat, I was really white. They took my ECG in the hotel, then it was a wheelchair and ambulance trip —

MARRS: And that was our weekend!

CHALMERS: We told that story to another American publisher and he said, “So… did you have a good show?” [Laughter] Eh, no, that was a “no.”

LEES: Well, that’s just that American veneer, isn’t it? Even if you are at death’s door, you can’t let anyone see that, and you’re still up there with a smile, banging your drum.

MARRS: I think he maybe misheard.

CHALMERS: Well, I don’t know, I think he maybe meant in terms of [slaps hands] money, cash, sales, you know? But he probably did mishear a wee bit It probably just washed over, the anecdotal stuff, and he thought about what’s important to him. I can understand that, and I wasn’t offended, he’s not an arsehole. I do tend to mumble. But it was just so unexpected, though, I would have expected, “So, are you OK now?" I know another lady that had a similar problem, that left her with tintinnabulation and tinnitus.

LEES: Oh, it’s awful.

CHALMERS: Have you got tinnitus?

LEES: I do, I busted my hearing after a gig at the Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh and it’s never gone away. So, I lie in bed at night and get kept awake by the whoosing and humming.

CHALMERS: Do you get the wee bells as well?

LEES: Well, I was deaf for about the next three days, and for about another week after that, I had the metallic clanging going on in my ears.

CHALMERS: Was this a metal band you went to see?

LEES: It was The Misfits, who were way past their prime, so it wasn’t even worth ruining my hearing for [Marrs laughs] — not so much the volume, either, just a really obscene amount of treble in the PA.

CHALMERS: “Attitude, you’ve got some fucking attitude.” Ex-Cathedra used to do that live and they did the Lemonheads song Uhhh, and once they even did “Come On, Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

LEES: Oh, Christ. I think that was the Glasgow joke, though, wasn’t it — in America it’s “Freebird” that they yell at bands, but over here it was always “Come On, Eileen” — so I think if you could turn around and actually play it, it was the biggest “fuck you” you could give back.

CHALMERS: Aye, they used to do "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", you know, “Desmond has a barrel in the marketplace” speeded up for some reason. Aye, pretty stupid cover versions. A tradition established by Stiff Little Fingers with silly encores. Going to gigs, the Glasgow bands: that was way back when we used to go out. I remember being quite alarmed at that wee guy having bothered to have read Strange Weather Lately and his name being Martin and it reminded me a wee bit of what it must be like to be younger. It was one of those nights where nobody was really out and I was just on the bus by hazard. He must have seen me on the back of the book and recognized me, because he just started talking about it.

MARRS: That’s really odd.

CHALMERS: It is odd, aye. But then, don’t let it get to your head, you know?

LEES: Fame, at last! [Laughter]

CHALMERS: Aye, that’s right — a guy on the bus! [Laughter] How will I ever go out again, I’ll need to wear glasses and go incognito! [Laughter]