The Many Layers of Bryan Talbot

A comics interview article by: Tim O'Shea
Bryan Talbot is a respected name connected to many stories and many creators. On the heels of the critically praised Alice in Sunderland (Dark Horse), Talbot has channeled his years of conventions and general exposure to fellow industry legends into a book that collects the many stories he’s heard, The Naked Artist (new from Moonstone). We also made time to discuss the upcoming book from NBM, The Art of Bryan Talbot, and the Desperado-published graphic novel, CHERUBS! (written by Talbot and drawn by Mark Stafford).

Tim O’Shea (TOS): Your recently released book, The Naked Artist, features themed chapters, covering such topics as convention stories, crazy fans, signings, publisher stories. Would you say any particular chapter was easier to write than the others, and to the other extreme was any one chapter stories harder to write?

Bryan Talbot (BT): Nope, I wrote it all really fast. After finishing Alice in Sunderland, which took years and involved a monumental amount of research, it was a joy just to sit down and bang out a really fun book. Then, of course, I went through it again and again, polishing, adding and otherwise changing bits until I was satisfied with it.

TOS: Your stories are hilarious, I rarely audibly laugh--and this book made me laugh really hard and aloud. The quantity and quality of your stories are staggering--I'm curious at more than 43,000 words--did any stories get edited out for space? Or is there enough material for another book?

BT: The only stories that were left out were either the boring ones or the ones that were too personal - such as the famous comic artist who was discovered masturbating in his hotel room or the two comic writers who made a game of vomiting up M&Ms which were then eaten by a sycophantic fan. Now that was just too disgusting! Tales of extra-marital affairs, stuff like that, just didn’t belong in there. This isn’t COMICS BABYLON. It doesn’t try to be nasty or salacious– just funny.

I have actually continued collecting more stories, just in case there’s a demand for a sequel. Just after finishing the final draft, Alice in Sunderland was published and I did a three-month signing tour to promote it. The signing at Jim Hanley’s Comic Universe was nearly cancelled when a guy jumped out of the 60th floor of the Empire State Building, which is right across the road from the store. He hit a ledge and went SPLAT! and his leg flew off and landed in the road outside the store. I have jpegs of the errant leg! The member of staff who took the pics waltzed around the shop during the signing singing “It’s raining men”. Unfortunately, this happened too late to appear in The Naked Artist but “The New York Leg of the Tour” will certainly appear in the sequel, should it appear.

TOS: Once finding out about the nature of the book, have people started seeking you out to tell you even more tales of industry adventures?

BT: Some, yes, some have. Colin Upton and Donna Barr to name a couple. As I point out in the introduction to the book, as Oscar Wilde said “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

TOS: Has anyone contacted you to take issue with the stories, or did you vet the stories with folks?

BT: I did vet some of the stories, particularly when there’s more than one about the same creator. There’s several Glenn Fabry stories – he seems to generate them. I ran them past him and he even supplied a few more I hadn’t heard. He even gave me an endorsement for the back cover!

Igor Goldkind is the only person who did take issue but, as I pointed out to him, he himself has recounted some of the stories in interviews and there are ones a lot worse that I could have told. I even went out of my way to state in the book that at least one of his stories is pure urban myth – it never happened. But it is told – and that’s the only criteria it needed to go in the book. Many people disliked Igor but I always got on with him fine. I thought he was basically a nice guy, just out of control when he was very drunk. He was instrumental in obtaining royalty payments from publishing giant IPC for artists and writers working for 2000AD and other publications and deserves kudos for that alone. As I said, I’m not trying to be nasty to anyone in the book. I just want to tell funny stories and, judging from the responses I’ve had, I seem to have hit the correct tone.

TOS: How did the book land at Moonstone?

BT: By outright serendipity. While I was still writing it, a friend, an Italian comic writer, insisted that I join Myspace. I couldn’t be assed, so he offered to set it all up, which he did. One of the first members who asked to be added as a “friend” was Lori Gentile of Moonstone. I hadn’t heard of the company before and asked what they published. When it turned out that they published prose as well as comics, I asked her if they’d be interested in the book and – voila – they published it.

TOS: In terms of your other recent work, Alice in Sunderland, positive reviews are still coming in about the work. Cory Doctorow recently wrote: "Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland is probably the single weirdest graphic novel I've ever enjoyed " Are you pleased when you read such unique praise like that?

BT: Absolutely. While I was working on it, I found it very hard to describe it to people as I couldn’t really compare it to another comic. Parts of it, yes, but there’s nothing remotely like the whole thing. At first this worried me quite a lot until Alan Moore told me that this was in fact a “VERY GOOD THING” – it meant that I was creating something genuinely new. The review does go on to say “there's weirder stuff out there, but it overshoots enjoyability” and goes on to be extremely positive.

TOS: How much of an impact did your interaction with the Lewis Carroll Appreciation Yahoo Group have on Alice in Sunderland?

BT: While working on the book it was very helpful being a member of the group (and I still am). It was part of my research. It’s an academic discussion group and, many times, I pestered them with questions that members always graciously answered. Some members even read through early drafts of the script to spot errors and offer suggestions and a few supplied me with jpegs of Alice illustrations and covers of books by Carroll that I couldn’t obtain elsewhere.

TOS: Did word of mouth on Alice spread among academic circles, after your speech at the Lewis Carroll Society of North America April 2007 meeting where "three remarkably heavy boxes" of the book were scooped up by attendees within an hour?

BT: I think it must have done [well]. I just received their journal, Knight Letter, this week where there’s an account of the conference and my talk and also a review of the book, both very positive . I’m a member of the British Lewis Carroll society and also gave the same talk at one of their monthly meetings.

TOS: What's been the reaction toward the work in Sunderland, the city where you live?

BT: I Enormous. Not just in Sunderland but in the whole of the north-east of England. I’ve been interviewed on all the local radio stations, on NE TV and in most of the regional newspapers and culture magazines (in fact, it’s been the cover feature with most of those). The local bookstores have sold thousands of copies. In my local Waterstones, it was their number three top seller for most of three months. Many local people seem to be buying multiple copies as presents for friends and relatives. On one occasion, a stranger walked up to me on Fawcett Street (seen in the book), and thanked me profusely for producing it. As a result of the book I’ve actually been made an official ambassador of Sunderland by the city council.

TOS: You yourself appear in Alice in Sunderland, did you hesitate in including yourself as a character in the narrative?

BT: No, not at all. I was influenced by the Robert Crumb strips where he talks directly to the reader. I’ve been meaning to try a book using that technique for ages.

TOS: This fall, NBM will be publishing The Art of Bryan Talbot. How did this book come about? How much were you involved in the development and can you tease folks with what will be some of the more unique pieces that might appear in the book?

BT: At the same time as writing and drawing comics over the past 30 years I’ve been doing magazine covers and book illustrations, prints, pin-ups and private commissions. This is a book which collects them all in one place for the first time, something I’ve wanted to see for a while. There are panels from various strips in there too, some well known, such as ones from Luther Arkwright, and others more obscure which I like as drawings. Photos of ephemera, such as trading cards, badges and stickers are included. There’s also a whole section of life drawings. I developed it, chose the images and wrote the text. Unique pieces include the covers and a couple of sample pages from comics I drew when I was 11 or 12 and some early fantasy fanzine illos and the life drawings have never been in print before. It came about when I mentioned the idea to Terry Nantier, the publisher of NBM, while we were discussing Veronique Tanaka’s graphic novel, METRONOME, which NBM are publishing next spring.

TOS: What exactly was the inspiration for the upcoming four-issue miniseries CHERUBS! from Desperado, which is being drawn by Mark Stafford and which features a groups of cherubs suspected of committing a murder in heaven? I'm intrigued that by the third issue of the mini "The Cherubs get drunk and experience the joys of physical existence, including hangovers, puking -and attraction to the opposite sex."

BT: I originally came up with the concept when asked to create a series for a web animation company who went bust, leaving me with a great story and nowhere for it to go. So I decided to rework the script as a comic and asked Mark Stafford, the hottest Brit Indy artist, if he’d like to draw it. I’ve known Mark for years and it’s great to have my words illustrated by such a talented cartoonist. The story itself is a fast-paced supernatural comedy-adventure. It’s funny and sexy and exciting. They’re heaven-sent and hell-bent! In this, the first story, they’re up against hordes of vampires, aided only by Mary – an “exotic dancer”.

I was surprised to read the solicitation copy you just quoted, as I originally wrote it but it must have been altered by somebody. It originally read “including hangovers, puking and getting a boner”! When the Cherubs get to earth, chased by two seraphim enforcers, they find that they are subject to the laws of physicality and have to deal with such earthly afflictions as belching and farting.

Desperado have been so impressed by CHERUBS! that they are no longer putting it out as a 4-issue miniseries, as originally planned, but are publishing it directly as an original graphic novel in November.

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