Some time ago I reviewed The Rainbow Orchid, the first book in what I hope will become a long series featuring the Adventures of Julius Chancer. As part of my Graphic Novel Month Garen very kindly offered to be interviewed for the blog. But his generosity does not stop there, for he has also said he will provide a sketched and signed copy of volume one of The Rainbow Orchid for a book giveaway contest which I will be running next week, so watch this space.
How would you describe The Rainbow Orchid to a potential reader?
It's a classic adventure story set in the late 1920s, with a story informed by the likes of Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, and a graphic style in the tradition of Hergé and Edgar P. Jacobs, though with a particularly British outlook. The plot concerns the quest for a mythical orchid, last mentioned by the ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus, which leads the story's hero, one Julius Chancer, into the lost valleys of the Hindu Kush, hotly pursued by the cold-hearted yet exoptable Evelyn Crow, intent on preventing him at any cost.
The Rainbow Orchid is set in the 1920s – how did you go about researching the book?
I was already fairly well immersed in the era thanks to my interest in silent film, and the decade is really the first of the 'modern age', when world-wide travel took off, so is quite recognisable to us today in many ways, yet it still has a foot in the Edwardian or even Victorian age, which I love. There have been some wonderful books that have helped me, for instance Alan Jenkins' The Twenties, which I got for £4 in a Brighton junk shop, plus a number of books on the fashions of the day. The Indian side of things has been a little more tricky, but again, it's second-hand books that often come to the rescue. P. S. A. Berridge's Couplings to the Khyber, for instance, has been great for little details on the North Western Railway of the Indus Valley, or some of the old educational books showing 'our empire', such as the Pictures of Many Lands series published by A&C Black in the early twenties. Sometimes you have to call in the experts, for instance when I needed some text translating into Ancient Greek. And I don't know where I'd be without some of the more obscure corners of the internet!
There are three volumes planned for The Rainbow Orchid, the second due out later this year. Can you give us any hints about where the story will take Julius and his friends next?
Volume one is mainly set in England, moving to France towards the end of the book. In volume two we're in India, travelling up the Indus Valley and into mountains of Chitral. And in volume three our intrepid adventurers are lead further north into the unknown. In India they encounter an elephant with a mind of its own, an exploding Fokker F2, an ancient ruined city, a crazed Afghan wielding a khyber knife, and a snow leopard. I'm not sure I can say much about volume three without giving too many secrets away. Perhaps I'll just mention there's an incident with a whirlpool...
Different authors create their strips in different ways. How did The Rainbow Orchid evolve?
I'd just completed a strip adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and next I wanted to create something with my own characters whom I could use again and again if I wanted. It was a toss-up between a science-fiction tale or a lost-world tale, and the latter won the day. To begin with a few elements came together from earlier story ideas – for instance, the Indian location came from an old scribbled note about Victorian vampire hunters on the sub-continent. I also wanted to make a comic that would be okay for kids to read – at the time there was an over-saturation of ultra-violent, gritty and dark comics, so-called 'mature readers' material that was actually mostly very immature.
The actual creation of the strip follows a fairly simple process. First it is plotted in note form, to which I gradually add more detail as various ideas come to the boil in my head. Then I'll break down the plot into pages, and then I'll script the story, page by page, doodling little thumbnail sketches as I go along to help with layout and point of view. Next I might do larger roughs on A4 and I'll scan them in and get some of the lettering down. After that it's on to the drawing – pencils first, then inks (using a dip pen and india ink), and then I scan the pages into the computer for colouring and lettering. The dialogue will be re-written and re-shaped several times along the way.
During March I have been spotlighting the first three books from The DFC Library on this blog. How did you become involved in The DFC comic and are there any future plans for your DFC strip Charlie Jefferson and the Tomb of Nazaleod ?
I basically got involved in The DFC after they saw The Rainbow Orchid online and decided to contact me. At first I worked with Philip Pullman on his story, but this soon moved into the more capable hands of John Aggs for more of a manga feel, and I was offered space in the comic to write and draw my own tale. At the moment I have no interest in doing anything with Charlie Jefferson – I like the story but feel as though it may need re-working a little and I can't forsee having any time to do that in the near future. I'm more fond of another idea I came up with, an interdimensional time-travelling adventure that was to appear much later in the comic's run. As it happened, neither story made an appearance as the comic folded. Serves me right for taking so long!
You are obviously a fan of the likes of Herge’s Tintin and Edgar P Jacobs’ Blake and Mortimer. What is it about these works that you like so much?
I was brought up on Asterix and Tintin and that lovely European album format is highly evocative for me. When I realised I didn't want to pursue a career as a work-for-hire artist in comics, just because comics are such hard work and I'd be putting all that effort in for someone else's vision, I decided to do a comic purely for my own pleasure. I wanted to include all the aspects of comic storytelling that I was attracted to, and those Franco-Belgian adventure albums were top of the list. I love the absorbing narrative style that results from the simple bande dessinée format, it has a classic cinematic feel to it. And the graphic clarity of the line and flat colours are also very appealing. It's quite a discipline to keep within what can be a fairly rigid format, but it forces you to concentrate on plot and story much more.
Apart from these are there any other big influences on your work?
Adventure films of the 1930s are a big influence, such as King Kong, She and Lost Horizon. And keeping with cinema, I greatly admire the storytelling style of Akira Kurosawa, especially the way his characters shape the plot, rather than being subject to it – I've not quite mastered that, but feel very happy when I get little touches of it in. David Lean and Charlie Chaplin are other creators whose work I find motivating.
What comics did you read when you were younger?
I've already mentioned Asterix and Tintin, which dominated my childhood, and have stayed with me into adulthood too. I read a spread of the British humour weeklies and also Oor Wullie, introduced to me by my Scottish grandmother. At about age 7 or 8 I got seriously into war comics, especially Battle and the masterful Charley's War. A couple of years later it was 2000AD, and then for a short while super-hero comics – until I discovered Warrior and Alan Moore.
Do you have any favourite graphic novels?
To pick out some particular books, I'd say my favourite Asterix book is possibly Asterix and the Roman Agent or Asterix and Cleopatra, and my favourite Tintin is usually The Black Island. I really like Nausicaa by Hayao Miyazaki and Dororo and Black Jack by Osamu Tezuka. Yves Chaland's Freddy Lombard stories (especially The Will of Godfrey Bouillon and F.52) and Edgar Jacob's The Yellow Mark would be desert island books, as would Trondheim and friends' Dungeon series. There's so many great comics to choose from... Charley's War, Luther Arkwright, The Left Bank Gang, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman... oh, From Hell is one of my absolute favourites. I should stop, I could keep going!
Can you recommend any other graphic novels that you think will have boy-appeal?
I think I'd especially pick out the Dungeon series. It's a little 'European' in places, so would probably suit older boys more, 12 and up, I'd say. I think Fantagraphics will be translating Tardi's Adele Blanc-Sec adventures soon, and those are terrific too – Adele And The Beast and The Demon of the Eiffel Tower have been available in English before, wonderful stuff. If you like science-fiction I'd heartily recommend Leo's Aldebarran from Cinebook, and also Roger Leloup's marvellous Yoko Tsuno – I used to spend ages hunting out the few out-of-print English translations of those, and now Cinebook are making them available again. For slightly younger readers, you can't go wrong with Astro Boy – at any age, in fact.
Before we bring this interview to an end, a very important question - Batman or Spiderman or ........?
These days I'm not so into superheroes – I think most of the modern stuff is a bit ridiculous! But I was always a DC comics reader, I could never get on with Marvel for some reason, so it would have to be Batman. My favourite series was The New Teen Titans, and I still have my collection of those, plus a complete run of the 1960s and early-70s Teen Titans with their stunning Nick Cardy covers, which I collected later. Actually, Marv Wolfman and George Perez are bringing out a new New Teen Titans book later this year, Games, and it's on my Amazon wishlist, just for old time's sake!
Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of this blog?
I think I read in Dave Shelton's interview that he's doing some kind of all-day breakfast – so let's go over to his place and carry on talking about how marvellous comics are!
Huge thanks to Garen for providing such detailed answers to my questions, and for making my Amazon wishlist double in length. And don't forget - next week there will be a contest on the blog to win that fantastic signed and sketched copy of The Rainbow Orchid.