EIBF Chapter 9: Totally Nuts

As you will have noticed from the two brilliant posts from Rosa Marnie, the Stripped thread of EIBF is in full swing. I’ve steered away a little from the established names, such as Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot and Grant Morrison – all of whom I love, of course – as I wanted to talk about and to some of the people who are doing incredible work, often on kids’ comics, that’s still perhaps a little under the radar.

Having just about recovered from my epic chat with Robert Llewellyn on Friday night at Looking Glass Books (which should be up here later in the week, but 90 minutes of chat will take a while to condense) and an annual trip to The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre (comics creator Kev F Sutherland on form and as funny as ever), yesterday I popped into Charlotte Square for a chat with Robin and Lorenzo, better known as the ridiculously talented Etherington Brothers.

Their three big works so far are Monkey Nuts, Baggage and Long Gone Don, works for kids that combine peril and adventure with extreme daftness, rendered in incredible detail.

Monkey Nuts, left, is the saga of a monkey and a robot caught up in all sorts of strange adventures, which ran in the DFC, has just been released in paperback. Long Gone Don recounts the attempts of a boy to find his way back home after he drowns in a bowl of soup and finds himself in some kind of freakish afterlife, the town of Broilerdoom, and is a regular feature in The Phoenix. Baggage is a quest to return a suitcase, published as a hardback in a similar style to French bande desinée volumes. It’s one of the best kids comics I’ve read for years. If you or your kids like Asterix, you must buy this.

I begin by asking about their upcoming event, is it fair to call it a stage show rather than a normal reading event?

Robin: “It’s a combination of imparting as many ideas as we possibly can about our approach to creativity, or just creative free-thinking, looking at storytelling, the details and the elements of creating worlds, not getting into the nitty-gritty of how to draw a hand but looking with a slightly aslant eye to create original ideas. It’s sort of a teachy-arty show meets Whose Line is It Anyway?
Lorenzo: We get them to give us things and we show them how a few simple things can generate an entire story quickly and easily.
Like “a city that runs on trams with things that get lost”, which sums up Baggage?L: Exactly.
R: That’s, bizarrely, one of the straightest ideas we’ve ever had. It’s a bit of looking at the world, and taking what’s inside here [points at his head] and mixing it all up to make something new.
You seem to be so prolific and there’s such a huge amount of detail in your work, is that because both of you are working at once?
R: We drew a line very early on with our joint projects. I would do all the words and Lorenzo would do all the art and we would never tell the other what to do, apart from maybe a tweak here or a tweak there. I wrote what I thought would be interesting stories and then we move to the art.
L: My passion with comics in general is that I just love the world-building. I love not just characters playing out their story on a simple canvas, I like the reader to feel like the world they’re reading about, experiencing, continues way beyond the borders of the panel. We know what’s round every corner: we can show it if we want or we can hint at it, and to me that’s what the great comic artists do. It doesn’t have to have a lot of detail, it’s the way that you hint at the fact everything is kind of happening and functioning in a sort of real-world way.
R: It’s like Terry Pratchett’s approach to world-building, we really connected with that sense that it works on every level. Even if you’re not using something, it will be there should you need it.
L: For me the world is the biggest character in the book.

With Monkey Nuts, Baggage and Long Gone Don you (and the main character, in the case of Don) are just dropped into the world.
L: Yes, it’s not explained.
R: It has to be functioning, it has to be working; they’re all society-based. They’re all societies where, I don’t know if it’s the right word, drudgery is the norm. I wanted there to be a mundanity to what’s going on 9 to 5, and our characters get pulled into something that’s odd in among that.
This harks back a little to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, in which he often says that what most people really want more than anything from tomorrow is for it to be roughly the same as today.
L: Yes, it’s very cyclical. We talk about animation and shows like The Simpsons, and how what every episode does is it brings it back to normality by the end. With Lord of The Rings you’re just wanting things to get back to Hobbiton and get back to normal, even though at the start of the story Hobbiton is really weird and everything is strange, but halfway through that book, Hobbiton is the normal: all of a sudden the characters’ normal is something that you identify with. I really like that.
R: We definitely do that. Through every one of our stories there is a constant desire to restore balance. Everything is imbalanced. In Monkey Nuts, for example, these two guys are pulled in directions to make them become much more than they are, when really all they want to be doing is lounging around eating bananas. In Baggage he just wants his job back. In Long Gone Don, a boy is stuck a million miles from home, just wanting to get back.
Have you ever had anyone complain that you kill a child in the first page of that?
R: The opposite! Parents seem to have skirted it completely because I did it really quickly; children absolutely loved it. You drown in your soup and this is where you end up, why not?
L: From the beginning Don’s approach is to get back home, so the suggestion there is ‘is he dead?’ You suggest finality but there’s always another page.

R: Don’s a bit different from the other books in that over the course of it we want to tackle different themes. In each book we’ll tackle something different. Before this, story always came first and the human element came from that. Now we realise that although it is still all crazy, kooky running around, underneath you are talking about something. Again, a very similar idea to Pratchett: he’ll be talking about a much bigger issue but he’ll be using a cast of oddities to frame that in a more interesting way. At the end of the day we just want to make really, really, really good comic books for children.
We get on to the subject of the resurgence of great kids comics, particularly by people like Gary Northfield and Sarah Mcintyre, Neill Cameron, Garen Ewing, and Jamie Smart and I pull out a copy of The DFC. 
R: That there [The DFC] brought to prominence a whole collection of artists and writers who had been ticking along, doing the same thing for years.
I note that they all seem to have a strong work ethic where perhaps, for a while, work-for-hire artists had been coasting a bit.
L: I think the work ethic comes from the fact all those guys came up on the indie scene. We did three years doing a comic called Malcolm Magic, Neill Cameron did Bulldog Empire
R: … Jamie Smart did Bear …
L: … they made a book when no-one was asking them to. When you’ve done that, once it’s in you, if you can make it through that – when you’re doing it for you and a group of fans, going to conventions, which is a great start – if you can do that, sticking to a deadline is no problem. The difference between these and franchise characters is that there’s not the same sense of ownership.
We turn to the fact that one of the ideas to save The Dandy was to allow creators to bring in new characters that were creator-owned, but as DC Thomson was built on controlling everything they wouldn’t buy it and they never will, even though that’s “not the way the creative world now works”. I loved Jamie Smart’s Pre-Skool Prime Minister, for instance and was surprised more wasn’t made of it. Do they think the lack of ownership affected that?
R: He doesn’t think that way. Jamie works exactly the same on any project, he puts all his love and heart and soul into it. He is the most prolific of all the authors. He puts out something like 12 pages a week. You need people like that as he’s the best thing that’s been in The Dandy for years. He does put all that down on the page, even if he doesn’t control the character.
In all this gushing about Jamie, whose Bunny v Monkey has been the funniest strip around every week for almost two years, I have to point you to his site and his next project, Moose Kids Comics, which is a plan to do a creator-owned anthology. 
The next thing I want to know is from Lorenzo, who creates a weekly puzzle page for The Phoenix, The Dangerous Adventures of Von Doogan. I can seldom do them, so how does he regularly come up with such tough puzzles?
L: I created Von Doogan because I wanted a series I could make a little quicker. I’d done a series of them in the Dandy, and that sparked a love of creating puzzles. I realised that once you get past word-searches and mazes, creating puzzles is incredibly creative because you are making a tiny murder-mystery. You know the solution and as writer and artist it’s your job to hide that solution in the most inventive way you can. I find them very quick to make. I can do two Von Doogans a day.
Probably quicker than most people can solve them.
L: I’ve gone back through and struggled to solve puzzles I’ve created a long time ago. As far as difficulty goes, our approach is the same as the rest of our work: we really respect our reader so we give them something that’s worth investing time in. They have to. Our books have things in the background you might not notice on a first read, and with the puzzles I want kids to know they’re really smart.
R: Similarly, you can give kids a sight gag, a pie in the face, but the next two gags have to be word-based, some pun or something that requires you to think about something that happened four pages ago. Some puzzles are hard, some are easier: you have to get the balance right.
On to Baggage, and the fact that in the style of Tintin, there’s a bit of a cliffhanger ready for the next book. Plans for a follow-up are in the works, but the Etheringtons say it’s a matter of time and desire from the publishers, and the state of the comics market in the UK. As their books are set in worlds that are not particularly “British”, I would have thought that someone would have translated them by now. They’d love them to be, but nothing is in the pipeline. I suggest that maybe there needs to be a critical mass of back catalogue for it to be easier to sell, as is happening with Garen Ewing’s work on Rainbow Orchid.
R: He’s just got his French adaptation, but that took a very long time. You would have looked at that and gone ‘it’s the clear-line style, it’s an easy Tintin sell’ but actually they’re very particular, and if it’s not Frecnh as a first language, you go right down the bottom. German artists and writers have a nightmare trying to get anything into France. More gets translated into English and gets published by guys like Blank Slate or NoBrow. But we’ll get there.
Having not heard of them before Monkey Nuts (apparently they have done a lot of work for franchises such as Star Wars, Madagascar and Transformers) I was wondering what their background had been.
L: I studied fine art sculpture, but I always loved drawing comics. I loved experimenting and trying to learn more and I loved making the things I was drawing, and I think you can still see that in our books. I’ve never wanted to get a style and stick to it for the rest of my life, but it gives you a fine-art grounding where you’re always doing it for the art not the money, because there isn’t much in this industry to begin with. You have to be doing something you love, that’s what keeps you going. That way when you’ve carved out your niche it’s much easier to say no when there’s something tempting but it’s going to pull you off that road that you really want to be on.
R: I did a history degree and went and used it for ages but it just so happened that we came together when Lorenzo was losing a bit of interest in what he had been doing, furniture design, and we found ourselves in the same headspace.
L: We were always doing stuff together as kids.
R: I went into a comic shop one day and hadn’t been in one for years and went, ‘wow, everything’s changed’. We ended up with funny talking animals.
L: We went to see Jeff Smith at the Bristol Comic Con. I hadn’t even heard of Bone, and he had pretty much finished it. He had the great approach that he set out to make the kind of book he wanted to make. We’d been messing around with ideas, and I looked at what he’d done and the way he’d done it, and thought his approach was so classy, so cool. That inspired me to go back to all the stuff I loved like Asterix and Tintin and look at all those guys who stuck to their vision.
R: It’s an art form that never lets you relax, you never quite master it. There’s always pacing issues you’d solve, framing issues and it’s grand. We’ve just sat down with book three of Long Gone Don, and it’s better than book two, I love book two, but we just keep tweaking and changing. As long as you’re competing with yourself quite hard, you will strive to make better and better. The audience do find you. We write timeless books that don’t rely on technologies that are going to disappear, they’re about attitudes and friendships and characters. 
I say that I see them as being like Goscinny and Uderzo to Garen Ewing’s Hergé.
R: He had a more focused desire in the first stage to go “I’d like to try and create something like that” and we twisted our styles and tried different things, and when we sat down with Don we thought, ‘We can do anything we want.’ We have done very different things with Lorenzo’s backgrounds but the flavour of the characters is similar.
I offer as an example the classic Asterix image of the piled-up beaten legionnaires and centurions being very similar to scenes in Long Gone Don.

R: We always loved the idea of having these villains that aren’t villains. People you’re kind of rooting for because they’re funny, but they can be beaten up at any given moment. There’s no consequences.
Is that something that comics are missing: everyone worshipping the grim and gritty?
R: Don’s the only character we’ve ever killed and… is he dead? You can make kids feel like there’s genuine peril without there being a death-related consequence.
L: A story doesn’t need to be gritty to have gravitas and scope and touch someone. Pixar have proved that. The challenge is how you make something that offends no-one but which can speak to lots of people …
R: …. and isn’t vanilla. You have to feel the passion for what we’re doing. That we love visiting this place with these people.

We begin to talk about Asterix and the fact that there’s a new one due out set in Scotland, the Land of The Picts, due out in a couple of months, and booksellery stuff about format changes and shelving before we’re accosted by David and Caro Fickling, who were responsible for The DFC and The Phoenix, who joined in with a quick photo before the Etheringtons were whisked off to prepare their event.

The event itself is quite something. The brothers zip through the basics of story creation, using a simple formula: choose a world, mash up some genres, create a character, give them some stuff, stick some obstacles in their way and see what choices they make. It sounds simple, and it is, but with each step explained carefully – with reference to mixing up bowls of different breakfast cereals and the wisdom of taking a tarantula to the beach – it was made all the more accessible by Robin’s energetic acting out of daft situations, beginning with a zombie offering his sweetheart some lovely brains and eventually skydiving with a monkey instead of a parachute. Very silly and really quite inspiring.

Next up, probably, will be: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie getting into the details of how Young Avengers is Written and drawn and a chat with Garen Ewing. And maybe, if he hasn’t collapsed after his six-hour workshop, an interview with Gary Northfield.

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