One of the finest graphic novels I’ve read in 2012 is Glyn Dillon’s Nao of Brown. As I mentioned in my five-star review of the book, this gorgeously drawn, wonderfully layered, spectacularly realized slice of reality absolutely blew me away. This may be the finest graphic novel of a very crowded year for great graphic novels.
So it was a real treat to get to pick the brain of Glyn Dillon and talk to him about the book, his influences, and just what in the world the deal is with the washing machines in Nao of Brown, anyway. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did conducting it, and then seriously, you have to go out and buy this breakthrough graphic novel.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: This book has been a long time in coming. Are you pleased with the results?
Glyn Dillon: At this point, on the whole yes, well… as pleased as any artist can ever be. There’ll always be pages or panels that you wish you had time to re-draw, but I’m quite accepting of that, it’s all part and parcel of comics. I’m really pleased with the achievement of finishing something, that’s more than good enough for me at the moment.
CB: How is your original vision different from the completed book?
Dillon: I’m not sure it’s possible to have an “original vision” on something this size. I dared not think about it in those early days, for fear of becoming overwhelmed. There were several times during the making of the book that my bad back and RSI were giving me such a hard time I wasn’t sure how I’d finish it.
So it was very much a case of taking one day at a time, small steps, etc. In fact quite early on in the process I bought and read the entire set of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, which is around 2000 pages long and took him about ten years to complete. That helped me get things in proportion.
CB: Nao Brown is an interesting protagonist for a few reasons. One is that she’s an undependable narrator. How do you see her subjective view of the world as different from the objective view that we get as readers?
Dillon: I suppose at first it is unclear what the real state of Nao’s mental health is, and because I make little difference visually between her reality and her obsessive morbid thoughts, she is an “unreliable narrator.” By doing this, we’re seeing things that Nao would definitely not have wanted to share with anyone. The nature of her OCD, it being POCD (Purely Obsessional Compulsive Disorder) means her compulsions go unseen, the hidden mental rituals she performs make it easier for her to hide her condition than say someone who had to wash their hands endlessly or flick a light switch however many times.
And the shame and self-loathing she could feel about some of these intrusive thoughts means she would find it difficult to talk about, even in her therapy sessions. So the view we get as readers is an honest one, more honest than she would probably like it to be.
CB: I was really intrigued by the fact that you never actually mention Nao’s OCD. Was that a specific decision you made?
Dillon: Yes. For reasons touched upon in the previous answer. Her condition is very… private, she’s shared a little with her best friend/flatmate Tara but really she’s struggling along alone, despite being in therapy (the “homework” she talks about is part of her therapy). As part of my research process I watched as many films that I could find that featured OCD in some way.
There was one called Dirty Filthy Love, starring Michael Sheen – It was a good film and it did a very good job of explaining what the condition was and how it worked, but watching that helped me decide I wanted to tell Nao’s story in a different way. I much preferred Scorsese’s The Aviator. He didn’t make big efforts to explain OCD, he just showed us how it manifested. I wanted to avoid over explanation. I think, when writing, it can be crippling to imagine a large audience, I wanted to narrow my focus, to write it for someone with OCD, who didn’t need it explained to them.
CB: One of the more interesting aspects of the book is Nao’s relationship with Gregory, especially the very casual way they become a couple. Are they really a good match for each other or is this a youthful game for Nao?
Dillon: I suppose it depends on how you define “good match.” In my experience I’ve found people can come into your life and perform the role of a catalyst of sorts, someone to get you from one place to another, often a disastrous relationship can end with a completely positive result.
CB: What’s the deal with the washing machines, anyway?
Dillon: Washing machines were the start of this whole thing. My son, when he was around one and a half years old, was afraid of our washing machine… Not when it was on and making lots of noise, but when the door was open, a dark hole there in the cupboard between the kitchen and the bathroom. He didn’t like to toddle past it on his own. It sparked in my imagination that maybe he knew something about washing machines that we didn’t… and the idea of this washing machine repairman Gregory Pope came into being.
That was the original starting point for the story, Nao was just a love interest for Gregory at first. Then her character became much more interesting, and it became obvious that it should be her story. Of course then lots of symbolism started to fall into place with regards the washing machine, the squaring of the circle, the archetype of wholeness, then the more obvious, turbulent, cycle/loop of obsessions and compulsions etc.
CB: Your characters all seem to be very keenly realized and specific; how did you create such realistic looking characters?
Dillon: Thank you. I don’t know, sometimes I’d use Photobooth on my Mac, if I wanted a certain, hard to recall, or an extreme expression, I would use it in the same way I used to utilize the mirror on my desk, except that now there’s the advantage of being able to freeze that expression. And I would use the same method for drawing Nao sometimes, despite not being as thin or pretty as her.
CB: You’ve created a whole separate mythology and symbolism with this book and the Japanese comics; why and how did you create this extra layer of depth?
Dillon: I love the world building that Moebius did, the fact that there was something people referred to as the “Moebius universe” was thrilling to me as a teenager when I first discovered his work, much like the Star Wars Universe was to me when I was younger. So I grew up on that stuff. It’s an attractive prospect (world building). It’s the ultimate “playtime,” and I guess I wanted to have a proper go at
it. And it had to be convincing, otherwise we wouldn’t believe that Nao loved it so much. It was great fun for me, trying to draw in a different style and trying to emulate my two art heroes – Moebius and Miyazaki.
I have thought it might be fun to do more ‘ichi’ stuff at some point. Check out the ichi website here…
CB: Nao seems to always be trying to quiet her busy mind, with her meditation and other techniques. Can she ever escape her own head, or is she always fated to be vaguely unhappy?
Dillon: There’s a Buddhist term – Dhukka – which is commonly translated as “suffering,” which is basically a realistic appraisal of life, neither optimistic or pessimistic. Life is hard, by its very nature it’s difficult and imperfect. So I wouldn’t say she’s anymore fated to be vaguely unhappy than the rest of us.
However, I do think it’s possible for her to conquer her OCD with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, and in some cases drugs might also help, but a real enthusiasm to face it would be essential.
CB: You did quite a bit of work in comics in the ’90s; where have you been for the last few years?
Dillon: I had grand ambitions of becoming a film director and the master plan was to get into it via the world of storyboarding and concept design. As it was, I ended up doing an awful lot of storyboarding and not so much directing. But here’s two things I did direct…
CB: What made you come back to comics after several years away?
Dillon: It was partly a frustration with the world of film and television, finding it hard to get personal projects off the ground, working on other people’s brilliant projects that then never saw the light of day whilst seeing terrible projects getting made all over the place. It’s a strange world, the world of film and television, a good idea and talent is rarely enough to get a project very far.
Then seeing the first Hellboy film which I thought was a pretty decent adaptation, and despite it being pretty good, it made me realize I’d much rather be poring over Mike Mignola’s artwork for two hours than sitting in the cinema. From then on I was back to seriously thinking about making comics. The thought that I didn’t have to rely on anyone else was a very attractive prospect. I could just get on with it in my spare time and eventually, I’d have something to show people, all of a sudden that seemed the obvious thing to do.
CB: What do you think of the reception to this book so far?
Dillon: I’ve kind of been blown away by the positive reaction so far, and I can’t help being slightly disbelieving of it all. But I think that mindset’s a good defense mechanism.
The best reactions I’ve had have been from, firstly my wife who was such a big support, I really wanted her to love it. And then some other people, who’ve made the effort to get in contact with me… somebody told me they suffered badly with anxiety and the book had helped them get ideas on ways to move forward. And another, when I witnessed someone reveal they suffered with OCD in front of a friend, who’d had no previous idea. That kind of personal reaction is amazing. And I’m really grateful to those people for sharing that with me, because it makes all the hard work, late nights and bad back completely worthwhile.
You can find more of Dillon’s work at www.naobrown.com