The Use of Style and Storytelling Technique in ‘A Tale of One Bad Rat’, Part One (Bryan Talbot, Writer & Artist)

I first presented the following article as a PowerPoint presentation at The International Comics Conference held by the University of the Aegean in Mytilini on the Isle of Lesbos in May 2005. In writing up the talk in prose form – that I’ve previously only done it from memory – I realised that I’ve always tailored it to the specific audience that I’ve had at any one time, usually focusing on some aspects and only briefly touching on others, as and where appropriate. Here, you have everything, some bits even slightly expanded and some reworded for clarity. During a talk it’s simple to communicate visual concepts, such as the position of compositional lines, with a wave of the laser pointer across the screen. In text form such things need describing in detail. Hence the somewhat lengthy nature of this “talk”.

Even though this was presented at an academic conference, I’m no academic myself. I’m just a storyteller. So please excuse the informal style and occasional anecdotes. They are all part of the story.

Bryan Talbot

Sunderland, 2013.

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This is a journey through some of my earlier work but I’m mainly going to be talking about the graphic novel, The Tale of One Bad Rat, first published in 1984. In both cases, I’ll primarily be looking at the use of style and storytelling technique.

Most Anglo-Americans will recognise, from the layout, title and typography of the cover, that it is a pastiche of the book cover style of Beatrix Potter, the British writer and illustrator of children’s books, who died in 1943. Beatrix Potter is one of the themes of the book but the story is actually about the psychological after-effects of child sexual abuse.

As you are doubt aware, the vast majority of comics produced in Britain and America are genre-based, specifically aimed at fans of particular genres. Superhero comics are the dominant genre but there are many others – science fiction, detective, cowboy, romance and horror, for example. While I was plotting this book it was only recently that comics had begun to be produced by people like Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman et al aimed at a mainstream readership: comics created to be read by 100% of the population, not just to the tiny percentage that comprises of readers of a particular genre.

As I realised that what I had in Bad Rat was a mainstream novel, I also realised that I would have to be very deliberate in the choice of style that I told the story in. It would have to be accessible to readers who didn’t have the acquired knowledge of ‘comics’ grammar’ that is intuitive to regular comic readers. Accessible to people who, perhaps, had never read a comic since they were children…

In other words, I had to let the story dictate the style.

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In a way, I have always done this.

I started my career working in British Underground comics – the comics influenced by the late 1960s and 1970s counter-culture – mainly for the Brainstorm Comix series published by Alchemy Press as a vehicle for my work.

The three comics at the foot of the image comprises the so-called Hackenbush Trilogy, published between 1975 and 1977. My first protagonist was Chester P. Hackenbush, the Psychedelic Alchemist. By this time, the psychedelic adventure story was already an established genre within underground comics and the plots of my Chester stories were basically that of Alice in Wonderland; Chester went on a “trip” at the beginning of the story, had his adventure, then “came down” at the end. This has now come full circle as my graphic novel,  Alice in Sunderland, that returns to these Lewis Carroll roots.

If you look at the cover of Mixed Bunch – an anthology – to the top left, you’ll see that this was the first appearance of my Luther Arkwright character in a short story very influenced by Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories.

For the moment, I’ll just point out the cover of Amazing Rock and Roll Adventures at the top right – and you can see that the style is very different. It’s a parody of old science fiction magazine covers. Pulp fiction style. You’ll see the reason for this shortly.

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This is a page from the first issue of Brainstorm and you can see that the drawing and inking is quite crude. My work in underground comics was my apprenticeship in the medium – I learnt as I went along and made all my mistakes in print.

Even so, Brainstorm was quite influential. The comics were read by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Jamie Delano and other comic writers years before they started their careers. Alan Moore even “Americanised” Chester into Chester Williams, a long running character in Swamp Thing, who even got his own title for a short while.

Currently there’s a London rap artist – an Eminem type – whose stage name is Chester P Hackenbush! Apparently he used to read and re-read his parent’s copies of Brainstorm when he was young.

In this first issue I was emulating US underground comic style – my version of it at least. You can also see a strong Jack Kirby influence in there.

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This is another page from the very first issue. The story here concerned Chester’s quest for “the ultimate reality” and here he discovers it. His ultimate reality is that he’s a cartoon character composed of black ink on white paper.

This sequence was plagiarised by Grant Morrison and used in his Animal Man comic.

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The first page of the second issue of Brainstorm.

 By this time, I had become more aware what I was doing and the artwork was a little more refined. I’d also been getting into old book illustrations by people like Arthur Rackham and Heath Robinson and was trying to create a synthesis of that and US underground style.

This is my favourite Chester story. The theme is the duality of life. You can see here that they are playing chess, black against white. Chester is reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and so on.

The story is also a partial pastiche of Alice through the Looking Glass – he begins his trip by passing through a mirror and returns through it at the end. And, like Looking Glass, the story is also a chess game that can be followed  by reading the symbolism in the illustrations denoting the advance of pawns, clash of knights, exchange of bishops etc.

It was also very self-referential: plot elements are pointed out and the characters, the hero, villain and heroine are introduced in their roles as such.

Yes, I was trying to be a smart-ass.

Anyway, this is the style that I told the story in. But I’d still change style if I wanted to project a different atmosphere. Here I wanted a 1950s EC Comics science fiction style, as done by Wally Wood.

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The image below is a panel from the third and final Chester story, which went under the wonderful title of A Streetcar Named Delirium!

As you can see, I stuck to the style I’d developed in issue two.

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Here’s a page from the sixth and final issue of Brainstorm – Amazing Rock and Roll Adventures – the cover of which I pointed out earlier, and you’ll see that the style is quite different.

The story, The Omega Report, concerned a plot by aliens to take over the world through rock music and the protagonist was Ace Wilmslow, Freelance Rock Reporter. His M.O. is that of a private detective and he narrates the story in a humorous Raymond Chandleresque style. So I wanted to draw the book in a way that evoked 1950s Film Noir.

All the Chester stories were inked with Rotring technical pens. For The Omega Report I learnt how to use a brush, to give a heavier line and lots of dark shadows. If you look at the shading, you’ll see that it’s very crude. I leaned on the job. It took me three months to realise that I had to use a brush that went to a fine point at the tip!

I also used lots of mechanical tints (or Letratone) for the grey shading, again, trying to emulate the look of old black and white private dick movies.

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This is a panel and a page from my first serialised strip, Frank Fazakerly, Space Ace of the Future!  It ran for the seventeen issues of Ad Astra, the British equivalent of the American Omni magazine, covering science fact and science fiction.

The strip, a comedy adventure, was a parody of 1930s movie serials, such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers, so I used Art Deco design in the features of the space ships, robots and costume.

All the characters had Northern English accents (like my own) and each strip ended on a cliffhanger. It was my first experience of meeting a regular deadline.

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My first graphic novel was The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, begun in 1978 and serialised in various comic magazines. The first volume was collected and published in 1981, making it, along with Raymond Brigg’s When the Wind Blows, one of the first two British graphic novels.

With Arkwright, I was trying to create a graphic novel that was every bit as rich and textured as a text novel. It was a reaction against the vast majority of British and American comics at the time, which were bland and formulaic. Nobody swore, vomited, had sex or farted. The violence was unrealistic. These things were in adult text novels – why shouldn’t they be in comics? I wanted to take the underground ethos and put it into a full-length adult adventure story in which I dealt with areas that adults are interested in, such as religion, philosophy, politics and eroticism.

Most of the story was written and drawn at the time of the rise of British right wing politics under the government of Margaret Thatcher and with the growth of fascist groups such the racist National Front, so the story had a strong anti-fascist theme.

It is noteworthy that the book was structured as a novel, not as an episodic monthly serial. This was something new in comics.

It’s a story of parallel worlds and is as much in the historical espionage genre as it is science fiction. I’d become fascinated by the work of the 18th century illustrator and painter William Hogarth and tried to approximate his dense shading style and use of symbols within his pictures to give the story a sort of historical patina. This cross-hatching inking style is extremely time consuming. It’s a little like knitting. You work for a few hours and find that you’ve only covered a few inches of the page as you build up the depth with layer upon layer of fine ink lines. This page took three days to ink.

This is actually the first page of the second volume. Titled Transfiguration, the theme was that of enlightenment, the protagonist, Luther Arkwright going through a metaphysical metamorphosis, entering the pure white light of the void and being reborn as the next stage of humanity’s evolution.

So here we have an essay in light and shade: the light streams in through the window and the interior is filled with softly reflected light. The character is side-lit by the match he lights his cigarette with. And, on the wall behind him, is the Pre-Raphaelite painting by Holman Hunt I am the Light of the World – a reference to the messianic status that Arkwright achieves in the volume.

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My work on Luther Arkwright drew me to the attention of comic writer Pat Mills, a major contributor to the successful and then cutting edge British weekly science fiction comic 2000AD. He needed an artist for the popular Nemesis the Warlock strip, the original artist, Kevin O’Neill, having quit in order to work for America’s DC Comics. He needed someone who could draw in a retro-SF style (since known as Steampunk) to suit the Nemesis story The Gothic Empire.

I’ve always tended to mentally divide my work into the categories of personal and commercial. My personal work is that which I have both written and drawn, whose characters I have invented and own and whose stories are, to some extent, self-expression. I’ll spend as long as necessary on the creation of these books and spend as much time as I can on research. With Bad Rat I read dozens of books on Beatrix Potter and child abuse, and talked with abuse survivors. With commercial work I will do the best job that I can but as quickly as I can. These comics are written by other writers, plus I don’t own the characters so have less of a personal commitment.

With Nemesis I needed to give it a historical feel but didn’t want to spend forever cross-hatching the illustrations, especially as I was working to weekly deadlines, so, where possible, I used mechanical tints for the grey tones. I also inked the strip with a brush, which is much faster than using a pen. And, if you look closely, you can see that I have actually learned how to ink with a brush by now!

I worked for 2000AD for about five years, mainly on Nemesis but I also drew some Judge Dredd strips.

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