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

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The subsequent Nemesis stories that I drew were mostly straight SF strips, so for these I dropped the retro style to produce a more streamlined SF look.

This is scanned from the original artwork, the finished cover being in colour. You can see here the method that was used before computers were used in publishing: each week the title, price, date etc had to be pasted up with glue directly onto the cover artwork.

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My favourite Nemesis strip was a twenty page role-playing comic, devised by Pat Mills, for 2000AD’s Diceman magazine. In it, the reader (or “player”) took the part of Nemesis’s enemy Torquemada and had to negotiate the strip by making choices every few panels, the choices taking the reader to specifically numbered panels where s/he could continue the story. The multiple endings had Torquemada either surviving or being defeated by his enemy – in this last panel he is definitely beaten!

The story – or game – was set on a hellish alien world that resembled the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, so I used an ink line and watercolour wash technique to give the strip a painterly quality. The strip was littered with surrealist references such as Dali watches hanging on trees, Magritte bowler hats and here, these creatures on the last panel are based on ones by Breugal.

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Since finishing the final volume of Luther Arkwright in 1989 I’ve worked on several titles for DC Comics, the last being a recent issue of Fables. This is a spread from the first work I did for them, the 48 page Hellblazer Special, written by Jamie Delano.

With each job that I’ve done for DC I’ve tried to produce a piece with its own distinct atmosphere and style. This story, The Bloody Saint, was mainly set in Dark Ages Britain, so I wanted to give it a very dark, grungy and textured feel, as if you could almost smell it. It’s inked heavily with a brush, with lots of dark shadows and framed on a solid black background.

I contrasted this with the present-day framing sequences at the beginning and end by inking them lightly, leaving them more open for light and colour, and placing them with a white background.

A use of contrasting styles for different sections of a story seems to be a recurring element in my work.

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The Nazz was a 200 page 4 issue creator-owned, prestige format miniseries written by Tom Veitch. I still think that Tom’s story is one of the very best post-Watchmen superhero stories.

It’s not set in the usual DC universe of Superman and Batman. Michael NazarethThe Nazz – is the only super powered character in the story, the theme of which is very simple: power corrupts.

We both wanted to give the series its own distinct look and feel and we did several things to achieve this.

Nazz gets his powers through Tantric means, so I designed the comic’s title logo to resemble a tantric mandala, making it look unlike any other superhero comic logo.

Each of the four covers featured a full-on painting of the Nazz in different stages.

Each comic began with a few pages of black and white artwork. In context there was always some reason for this. In one issue it’s a series of views through a close circuit TV camera. In another it’s a few pages from a comic strip of The Nazz supposedly draw by one of the story’s characters in an amateur style influenced by Jack Kirby. In the fourth chapter, it’s a photograph of Nazz’s girlfriend Nina’s mementoes, in black and white, but with a few small flames in colour licking at the bottom right-hand edge. When you turn the page, the whole of the next is going up in full colour flames in a conflagration that denotes the apocalyptic nature of this final chapter, wherein the US military drop a nuclear bomb on the Nazz in a vain attempt to destroy the monster that he has become.

Each issue was a chapter focussing on one of the main characters and this last one was Nina’s Book.

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As part of giving the book its own distinct look, I chose to employ a six-panel grid as a basis for the storytelling. On the right hand page you can clearly see the grid, a format much favoured by Jack Kirby, but the grid is also there on the facing page. Remember that the outer edges of the page are also part of the grid. The left hand page has two grid panels at the bottom, with the top four panels consumed into one and going right to the edges of the page.

This is a spread from the final chapter and you can see how Michael Nazareth has become a bloated Elvis-like figure, holding court and surrounded by his disciples, all of whom are following him in the hope that he’ll bestow some of that power onto themselves.

On the second page, Nina’s brother Johnny shows Nazz his completed Nazz comic, only to be told that it’s trash.

For all sequences where the situations are relatively static – such as conversations or everyday events – I stayed rigidly with the grid. However, as soon as we have a weird or action sequence, I dropped the grid completely to give a marked contrast.

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Such as here, a few pages later, as Nazz makes his acolytes drink his own bathwater, giving them a hallucinogenic vision, we’ve completely lost the grid. Instead we have a freestyle layout, culminating in a collage of images, the individual panels becoming elements in one large panel, or meta-panel. Note also the change to non-naturalistic colours.

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I drew some of the Sandman stories, written by Neil Gaiman, who’s always a joy to work with. This is from my favourite one, Augustus. 

Apparently, it’s a historical fact that the Emperor Augustus used to disguise himself as a beggar for one day every year and beg on the streets of Rome. No one knows why he did this. In the story, Neil postulates that it’s in order to hide from the Gods while he plots the downfall of the Roman Empire after his death as a form of revenge on his uncle Julius Caesar. The story is basically a twenty-four page conversation between Augustus and an actor, a dwarf named Lycius, who disguises him and accompanies him for the day.

The story required research to appear authentic. All the costumes, furniture and architecture were as accurate as I could make them.

Because of it’s setting, I wanted to give the story a classical feel. Augustus boasted that he found Rome built of brick and left it clad in marble and reconstructions of Roman buildings always appears to be composed of white stone. So I decided to use lots of white throughout the story. As well as the walls being white, we can see here that there is actually no border at the bottom of the panel. They are standing on the pure white of the page, making the white that surrounds the panels part of the image, not simply a neutral background.

To add to the classical feel, I used mostly horizontal and vertical lines in the composition of the individual panels, with very few dramatic angles that require diagonals.19SandmanPanel2

Augustus was very powerful and somewhat frightening. This is the first time in the story that we see him and you can see that I’ve used a very low point of view – or camera angle if you prefer – to introduce him. Our viewpoint is low, near the floor of this room and, subconsciously, we have to look up at him. This is to impart a feeling of power and I maintain this throughout the story. Throughout the story we are seldom at his eye level but below it, usually on the eye level of Lycius the dwarf.

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Here they are at the beginning of the day, walking to the market place to beg. 

You can see the use of horizontals and verticals in the composition very clearly – in the temple in the first panel and the upright figures and also in the four other panels, which make 4 vertical blocks.

Again there’s lots of white and in the first panel they are walking on the pure white of the page.

In each panel, apart from the close-up, we’re on Lycius’s eye level, not that of Augustus. 

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This is what we see when we turn the page: they are arriving at the market place to beg. I carried the use of horizontals into the panel layout, using thin wide panels. And they sit on stone steps, emphasising this.

Again, lots of white stone, their feet are on the white of the page and our eye level is predominantly that of Lycius.

They sit talking here all day and so I wanted to add some elements that denoted the passage of time. One of the them was simply to have the clean floor before them become gradually dirty and littered with the detritus of the marketplace as the day wore on.

Another was the placement of the light source. When they first arrive, in panel one, the sun is very low in the sky, early morning. Although we can’t see it, it’s casting long shadows from the wall to our left. On subsequent pages, as the day goes by, the shadow gets shorter until the wall is no longer shaded. By noon, the sun, the light source, is directly overhead: Augustus pulls up his hood and deep shadows are cast downwards over his face. Then the wall to our right becomes dark and a shadow creeps leftwards until, at the end of the day when they leave, it’s almost reached the left wall, denoting that the sun has now sunk low on the opposite side from which it rose. Now, I don’t expect that any readers actually noticed this and in a way I hope that they didn’t. But their eyes did see it, whether they noticed it or not, informing them on a subconscious, subliminal level that time has passed during the course of the story.

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This is a page of the short flashback sequence wherein Augustus describes to Lycius the dream that gave him the idea to beg on the streets and you can clearly see that I’ve departed from the story’s self-imposed strictures to create a totally different atmosphere.

Now the ultimate background is solid black. The horizontals and verticals are replaced by strong diagonals, even in the panel shapes. The eye level is high and we look down on Augusts, who looks almost child-like as his feet dangle over the side of his couch: he has no power here. Also gone is the naturalistic colour.

TO BE CONTINUED…