Tuesday, December 21, 2010

FYC bonus: Bryan Talbot's "One Bad Rat"

While I was writing for the Pulse, I had the opportunity to interview via email a number of creators whom I had admired for a long time. One of these creators was Bryan Talbot, creator of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, Alice in Sunderland, and Grandville, among many other classics. Sadly, the piece on Bryan Talbot never made it to publication before my association with the Pulse ended. Now, I get to change that. And I need to thank James Robertson, curator of the great Bryan Talbot site, for setting this up for me back in 2008. If you are at all interested in the works of Bryan Talbot, check out www.bryan-talbot.com, it is a wealth of information and art.


For Your Consideration: Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat
By Chris Beckett

The Tale of One Bad Rat
Written and Drawn by Bryan Talbot
136 pages, full color
HC: $19.99
Dark Horse Press, 2010 (2nd ed.)

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Helen Potter is living rough – begging for food on the London streets as the chill of December sets in. A teenager, she has run away from home, following a similar path of her hero – Beatrix Potter. Her only friend is a pet rat. Living in Helen’s coat, it keeps her company as she tries to survive and figure out what to do next.

Walking along the banks of the Thames one evening, Helen is accosted by a drunk who tries to take advantage of her. Luckily, a group of boys roughly Helen’s age come to her aid, relieving the old sod of his wallet and Rolex in the process. They invite Helen to stay with them in their squat. She begs off initially, but the rain thrumming on the box she calls home changes her mind, and Helen makes her way to Kensington.

Helen finds comfort here for a while but is still plagued by the visions that have pursued her since she was young. She whiles away her days re-reading her Beatrix Potter library and copying the drawings found within. Helen feels a strong connection to these books and to their author. She tries to fit in with the others but when one of the cats kills Helen’s rat, she moves on once more, leaving the city behind to follow Beatrix Potter.

Heading into the countryside, Helen Potter is joined by a large apparition of her now-deceased rat. In the Lake District, Helen finds what she has been seeking – the peace needed to come to terms with her past and what her father did to her. With the understanding Helen gains from her self-reflection, she comes to realize that she must confront her father in order to finally move on with her life.

The Tale of One Bad Rat is a brilliant piece of fiction that feels far too real. Not just an expertly crafted piece of drama, One Bad Rat is also an important and relevant narrative that speaks to one of the most important and discomforting issues of our day – child sexual abuse. Tackling this subject is not an easy task – tread too far one way and one can be accused of “preaching,” while falling too far on the other side destroys the integrity of the work. But Talbot is at the top of his game with One Bad Rat and manages to weigh each of these priorities – telling a good story while conveying an important message – in order to produce an incredibly powerful comic.

The pacing of One Bad Rat is delicate, with Talbot teasing things out in an unhurried fashion. He intersperses the contemporary narrative with flashbacks, giving readers insights into Helen’s past, which in turn illuminate her current state of mind. Through these memories, the audience learns quickly what her home life was like. It’s not pretty and explains a lot about how readers have seen her act prior to this revelation. Uncomfortable with new people, unable to trust them, Helen is afraid of getting close to anyone and has an understandable problem with people trying to be affectionate with her.

Over the course of the story – originally broken up into a four-issue mini series – Helen grows as a person. She comes to grips with her past, moving beyond the guilt she once felt to anger at being taken advantage of. In a moving scene, Helen climbs the Old Man of Coniston, a mountain half a mile high, and, in the rain, releases her pent-up frustrations, screaming into the darkened sky. This is the turning point, the moment in which she knows she can finally confront her father.

Talbot is also an accomplished artist, and his work is as crisp and clean in One Bad Rat as in any of his other works. His landscapes in this tale rival Geof Darrow for their detail, and the facial expressions of his characters are second to none. There are some scenes that go on for pages sans dialogue, and Talbot conveys the emotion and the meaning of these scenes beautifully through the body language of the characters. It’s a classic example of using restraint to enhance the storytelling.

Talbot also utilizes the nine-panel grid with a facility rarely exhibited by other comic artists. In order to control the pacing of the story, he warps the nine-grid, stretching some panels right to the edge of the page while other smaller panels are overlaid on larger ones expanding across the background. He also combines panels to create larger ones when it suits the story, giving readers the comfort of the nine-grid while pushing at its boundaries to enhance the storytelling. It’s subtle but engaging, a master storyteller using all the tools available to create an important work of art.

Though the linework and layouts in One Bad Rat are impressive, the coloring is what really stands out for me with regard to Talbot’s art. There are many pages where it feels like he is using watercolors to achieve his effects. Much of the color feels it was applied with a brush, giving the art a more natural feeling than the flat coloring found in so many comics. The overall effect is that I find myself drawn in even more because of the classical beauty of the art. Even fifteen years removed from its initial publication, these four issues stand out against the “rest of the crowd” found on the comic racks in 2010.

An Interview with Bryan Talbot (originally conducted in 2008)

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Bryan Talbot: I've been reading them since before I went to school, before I could read, in fact, following the stories without the words. I started drawing my own comics when I was about eight. I just continued reading them as I grew up. I love illustration. I also love stories. With comics, you get both! What could be better?

Beckett: What was your inspiration for The Tale of One Bad Rat and what aspirations did you have for the book?

Talbot: The original idea was to set a comic in the English Lake District, a place I know very well. One day I visited the house of Beatrix Potter, the writer and artist of children's storybooks who died in 1943 and it occurred to me that she told stories using a mixture of words and pictures, as did I. After researching her, I didn't think that I could make an interesting graphic novel based on her life. The recent movie "Miss Potter" made it interesting by cheating - they just made things up, departed from the truth somewhat. I didn't want to do that.

Then I saw a teenage girl begging in a London subway station. She was being harassed by this huge Jesus freak, who was trying to get her to go somewhere with him. She looked so mortified, as if she wanted the ground to open and swallow her up. It put me in mind of descriptions of Beatrix Potter at her age: "painfully shy". That became the first scene in the book.

Beckett: How much research went into the creation of One Bad Rat, and was it difficult for you to work on a book dealing with such uncomfortable subject matter?

Talbot: It wasn't all that difficult. I just had to make sure that I wasn't being preachy or simplistic. I was careful not to make her father, the abuser, a two-dimensional monster. Like the vast majority of abusers, he's just an ordinary guy who's so selfish and thick-skinned that he doesn't consider his daughter's feelings.

I did a great deal of research. I read about a dozen books on the psychological after-effects of abuse, though one would have done. They all repeat the same things in different words. I also read transcripts of abuse survivors talking about their experiences and talked to friends who had been abused. The same phrases are repeated again and again, both in survivors’ descriptions of what they felt and still feel and in the coercive language of the abusers.

When I was plotting the story, I needed an excuse for her to run away from home. Sexual abuse is often a reason for kids running away and I put it in, almost without thinking. It was only after I'd done the research that I realised that this was far too important to be a marginal story device and that it had to be what the book was all about.

My primary concern was to tell a good, gripping story

I also read over a dozen books on Beatrix Potter.

Beckett: I like how you broke the story up into different sections that fell at natural points within the narrative ­ Town, Road, & Country. But these didn't fall within the prescribed 32 page increments when initially published. How did you approach the initial mini series and were any revisions necessary for the story to work in the standard comic format?

Talbot: No, it was just a matter of where to cut the story. That's why the comic page count varies in each edition. The story was structured as a novel. The book is really in two halves, Town and Country - a reference to Beatrix Potter's tale of the town mouse and the country mouse. Road is just a short linking sequence.

Beckett: You are an artist who has managed to achieve success within the comics medium on your own terms. That said, what advice would you give to aspiring creators hoping to break into comics?

Talbot: Persistence seems to be the overriding factor. If you have the talent and really want to do it, don't give up. Bad Rat was rejected by every publisher of illustrated books in Britain. This is before the current boom in graphic novels, when "comics" was a dirty word.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Talbot: I'm writing the next CHERUBS! book, which is now being drawn by Mark Stafford. The first graphic novel in the series was published recently by Desperado. Mark is the hottest Indy comic artist in the U.K. and his work on CHERUBS! is amazing. I can only compare him to an Evan Dorkin or Bob Fingerman, though his style is clearly his own. The book is a supernatural comedy-adventure, featuring a bunch of gonzo cherubim loose in New York on the eve of the apocalypse.

I'm also about halfway through my next graphic novel. It's called GRANDVILLE (published by Dark Horse, 2009) and is a steampunk detective-thriller.

Monday, December 20, 2010

previously unpublished Joe Quesada interview from 2001

Back in 2001, Dan and I and a few other friends started to discuss creating our own comics & prose anthology. If you read the introduction, you know how that endeavor went and how it eventually led to Dan and I finally publishing the first issue of Warrior27. But, back in the spring/summer of 2001, I managed to get one piece of that initial puzzle completed.

At the time, Joe Quesada was just a year into his tenure as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics. With the advent of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely on New X-Men, Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil, and J. Michael Straczynski on Spider-Man, I was excited about Marvel Comics again. So I emailed Joe Quesada, introduced myself, explained that my friends and I were putting together a self-published anthology, and inquired as to his availability to answer some questions. To my surprise, he said yes. And even after I cut and pasted the questions into my subsequent email, leaving Mr. Quesada with a page of illegible nonsense, he was incredibly gracious.

What follows is the article as I wrote it back in 2001. This is the first time it’s been published. I hope you enjoy.


Joe Quesada, in a relatively short time, has risen to prominence within the comic publishing community. After working on Spelljammer, part of DC’s TSR line of comics from the early 1990s, his work was showcased in the 1992 four-issue mini series The Ray. This was followed by another four-issue mini series, written by legendary Batman scribe Denny O’Neil, entitled Azrael. With these two series, Quesada was now fully within the sights of comics’ fandom.

After some more work for Marvel, DC, and Valiant Comics, Quesada started his own independent company with Jimmy Palmiotti called Event Comics, which published the series Ash, among others. This venture led to Quesada coming to work as editor of the Marvel Knights line of comic books, which has produced well-received projects such as Daredevil, Black Widow, Marvel Boy, The Inhumans, and Punisher by such noted creators as Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Grant Morrison, Paul Jenkins, Jae Lee, Kevin Smith, David Mack Brian Michael Bendis, Greg Rucka, and J.G. Jones, as well as Quesada and Palmiotti – a virtual who’s who of today’s top-notch writers and artists. And now, Quesada is a year into his tenure as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, arguably one of the most high profile jobs in this business. The following interview was conducted via email, and I would like to thank Mr. Quesada for taking the time to answer my questions.

CHRIS BECKETT: Given the amount of enthusiasm and love for your job you convey, is it safe to say you are comicdom’s biggest fan boy?

JOE QUESADA: I really am beginning to hate the term fanboy. Do movie buffs call themselves Moviemaniacs? It’s kind of self loathing in a way, but that’s a conversation for another day. Am I comics biggest, fan? Nah, I think Stan Lee is!

BECKETT: What do you see as Marvel’s place in the industry? And, along those same lines, what do you see as your place in the industry?

QUESADA: Marvel’s place is as the industry leader. That doesn’t just mean sales, it means the leader in making the public aware of all the different types of comics that are available and what they’re capable of. Of course, Marvel had trouble doing that in the past because we got to the point where we were only doing one type of book. We also have a responsibility to be a positive voice for our industry! My role in all of this is a simple one - just try to keep the place on track.

BECKETT: Movies are able to tell stories visually and with action, books allow us to use our imaginations when experiencing the story, and television lets our interaction with the story be a very personal thing. As a storytelling medium, what does the comic book industry bring to the table that is unique unto itself?

QUESADA: It brings you the wonderful meshing of all these mediums. It captures moments in time and combines them with intriguing narrative that, if done well, suspends the readers’ belief in the fact that they are simply staring at still pictures. It’s a feast of the senses and mind that I believe can’t be found in other mediums. Similar to TV we offer something that movies can’t and most books don’t. We offer our stories in a continuous serialized fashion. Like TV, when we do this well we tell the best stories on the planet. For the most part, especially if you go to the movies a lot, you’ll notice how little care is taken with stories. On average, when done well, you get more bang for your buck with comics.

BECKETT: Why should somebody pick up a comic book or a graphic novel and read it? What is your argument in favor of comic books as an exciting way to tell stories?

QUESADA: This is one of those tough questions because either you get the excitement of comics or you don’t. Most of us have an immediate reaction to great art. For me it runs especially deep with illustrators like [Norman] Rockwell and [Alphonse] Mucha. These are artists that are conveying a story, or trying to, with a single image. So I just imagine the thrill of seeing beautiful artwork telling a story in multiple images. Not every artist is a Rockwell, but we have so many different types of styles available in our industry that there’s sure to be something for everyone. The problem is making them aware of it. Comics are also man’s most basic and oldest form of expression. Just look at cave walls and you’ll see that we’ve been telling stories with pictures for a very long time. I think the problem is that we’ve placed such a stigma on stories with pictures that most adults don’t see it as viable. But who among us can say that they haven’t read a novel and at one point thought about how cool it would be to have an illustration or two sprinkled about? I mean, we’re already doing it in our mind’s eyes anyway.

There is also a larger emotional connection to a great comic. You can curl up with it and savor it, or breeze through it – whatever mood strikes you. It is the perfect synthesis of a great epic movie and a wonderful thick novel!

BECKETT: What graphic novel would you lend to someone to spark their interest in comic books and why?

QUESADA: The usual stuff. Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Marvels and Watchmen.

BECKETT: Before ascending to Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, you began as an artist. Who were some of your influences and what did you learn from these artists, either by observing their actual work or from discussions you may have had with them?

QUESADA: Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, Alex Raymond, Mike Mignola, and Alphonse Mucha were among my biggest influences. I learned basic design and placement of blacks. Graphics have played a very important part in my artwork based on these artists and their influence.

BECKETT: As an artist, would you rather work from an intricately detailed script like Alan Moore’s or from a basic plot like the “Marvel Method” made famous by Stan Lee?

QUESADA: It really doesn’t matter to me. I’ve worked with both. The key is that if you’re working with a writer who writes full script, you have to hope he or she has a visual sense to them. What Marvel method does is it cures a lot of stagnant talkie scenes that non-visual writers are prone to writing. This is what I’ve discovered in my days editing here at Marvel. If you have a writer with a great knack for dialogue, this particular writer may write the most amazing scene between two characters as they walk down the street. This can go on for five pages and the writer, even the editor, may not suspect how bland the action is because they are so overwhelmed by the naturalness of the conversation. This works well in novels, but in visual mediums it usually puts the audience to sleep. What happens normally is that nobody knows it’s dull until the artist calls up complaining about the scene. In the Marvel method, you’re forced to describe the action and then let that dictate the patter afterwards. What happens in this case is that if the writer knows that the characters are going to have a long five-page chat, he or she will find themselves writing, “Page One, they walk. Page Two, they walk some more. Page Three, they . . . oh darn!” At that point, they realize that visually there’s nothing going on, and the editor sees it very clearly as well. What I find really works well is a mixture of the two. A quick action description by the writer with a block of dialogue of what’s going to be said on the page so the artist can pace accordingly.

BECKETT: What are the inherent advantages and disadvantages of these two differing styles?

QUESADA: See above for the disadvantage of full script. The Marvel method can be disastrous if you have an artist that doesn’t understand pacing and storytelling or is one of those throwbacks who only care about big pinup images, leaving the writer nowhere to go.

BECKETT: Many fans think of inking as an easy job because it “only involves tracing” the pencils. Obviously, there is more to it than that. What is it that a top-notch inker brings to a project?

QUESADA: Well, for starters it is an art of control. A great inker brings with them drawing skills of their own that can help enhance a penciler’s work. They can add dimension to pencils or that certain x-factor that really makes the art sing.

BECKETT: From a layperson’s point of view, it is fairly obvious what an artist needs to do in order to try and break into the business of creating comics. For writers, it is a little more difficult. When looking over blind submissions from aspiring writers, what are some things you look for if you are seeking to hire new talent, and what are some tips you could pass along to aspiring writers regarding their submission and how to better their chances of getting into the business?

QUESADA: A short proposal. That’s the first key. If I see paragraph upon paragraph, I tune right out. Any great idea can be described in a short paragraph, any brilliant idea in a sentence!

BECKETT: With the Ultimate line, Backpack Marvels, the Marvel Knights and Ultimate Marvel magazines, MAX, the upcoming mature line, and the weekly War Machine series, there has been a lot of experimenting going on at the House of Ideas. Regarding the War Machine series, you cite the popularity of manga in Japan as part of the reasoning for this project. Keeping with the manga theme, is there any chance we may see an anthology of original and diverse material from Marvel anytime in the not too distant future?

QUESADA: By now you’ve heard about our Manga 5th week event in January. We have a few more big announcements for that launch, but if it does well, who knows, maybe we’ll create an imprint around it much like Marvel Knights!

BECKETT: For a number of years, it has been the perception that DC Comics has been ahead of Marvel in having top-notch talent such as Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Charles Vess, and others, as well as offering a wider variety of projects in genres other than the typical superhero stories that are a staple of the industry. However, this has certainly changed with many big name creators coming to work for Marvel, along with the expansion to a mature line and a creator-owned line. How has this major change for Marvel Comics come about? What is different now at Marvel that is allowing these changes to take place?

QUESADA: Well, for starters, it’s not a perception. DC did have the big guns. Granted, a lot of what they did later was inspired by early Epic, but there’s no doubt that they did it better. I think that the creative community has been waiting for Marvel to change its ways; they just had no idea how long it was going to take. We’ve changed our way of doing business creatively. It’s a simple philosophy. Hire the best creators and let them do what we hired them for!

BECKETT: One of the biggest problems still facing comic books is the prejudice that they are only for kids. What are some ideas you have for educating people about the medium and overcoming this narrow-mindedness?

QUESADA: Getting rid of the [Comics] Code was a start. Also, no offense to the Vertigo line, but since Marvel is so good at getting mainstream press, I think that the MAX line will be a big boost towards changing those perceptions. Also, stuff like the Cartoon Network launching adult cartoons late at night will help the perception of comics as well.

BECKETT: Another problem facing the medium is the perceived lack of return on one’s financial investment. Some people feel they are not getting their money’s worth when they can finish a $20 trade paperback collection in less than two hours. Marvel’s Essential line of trade paperbacks is a big step in the right direction regarding this. What are other ways to tackle this problem?

QUESADA: Well, with print media it’s very difficult because of the high price of paper and the low volumes. Hopefully, as readership increases, publishers can be more aggressive with the print numbers and prices can be lowered. Another option is the dot comics, which make a large amount of material available without paper costs.

BECKETT: Late shipping books are another problem that seems to plague the industry. Whether it is a week or a month or six months, these delays in shipping can become annoying to consumers and end up driving fans away. Can you tell us what Marvel is doing to try and alleviate this predicament and what are some other things that you feel need to be done in order for these books to ship in a more timely fashion?

QUESADA: We took a very aggressive approach by hiring Bob Greenberger as our new Managing Editor. Bob was instrumental in setting up a system years ago at DC that kept the trains running on time and as smoothly as a line that large could.

BECKETT: What audiences do you feel are not being reached by the comic book industry, and what would you do to tap into these markets?

QUESADA: Young girls. Outside of Archie [Comics], no one can come near them. It’s tough. At one point, Marvel had Barbie Comics, but they went the way of the dinosaur as well. We’re looking at a number of different properties for girls, but it’s really a crapshoot.

BECKETT: Other than direct market stores and bookstores, where should comic books and graphic novels be sold today? Why?

QUESADA: Everywhere! Toy stores, music stores, you name it!

BECKETT: What are some other problems you see that are holding the comic book market back, and how would you suggest handling them?

QUESADA: We have a big distribution problem, but I’m hopeful it will fix itself. I’m going to bet that in the next few months book outlets like Barnes and Noble are going to see the profit potential in comics and increase our exposure. As long as we continue to improve our content and provide readers with stories and art that they want to read, this trend will continue to increase.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Scripting via Poutine

NOTE: I've pulled all but the first image (leaving it as a teaser and placeholder) because I've managed to place the story with an online anthology, but they prefer first-run work, so I'll do my best to abide by that. I'd rather not say any more right now (superstition and all), but once it goes live the images will return here. Thank you very much Noel for the kind words and to those that have checked this short story out. It's much appreciated.

Over at the Poutine website - the collective home of Canadian artists Noel Tuazon (Elk's Run, Tumor, The Broadcast) and Jason Copland (Perhapanauts and collaborator on this UFO story for Ape) - Jason has thrown up 11 pages of art he did while in Las Vegas. He had no narrative in mind while drawing them, and has offered the pages up to writers who might wish to script a story with them. In his blogpost, Jason states that one can rearrange the pages as necessary to create the story, but I chose to keep them in the order offered, a nice writing challenge.

Below are the lettered pages as scripted by me. I hope they make sense. There's a bit of non-linear storytelling going on due to the restriction of keeping the pages in order as they are on Jason's site. maybe I'll return to this after the holidays to see what other narratives I can come up with, as this is really the beginning of something. Click the images to get a better look.

Artwork © 2010 Jason Copland


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Colored version

and here is the final version of my Aquaman piece for the Comic Geek Speak secret Santa list:


Thursday, December 2, 2010


Yesterday I threw up the pencils for my Secret Santa sketch at the CGS boards. Today, the inked version.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

some amateur art


I'm participating in a "Secret Santa" activity over at the Comic Geek Speak boards. You put your name on the list, one of the other members "draws the names," and for whomever you get, you draw a sketch of their choosing (regardless of artistic talent) and send them 3 comics from your collection. This is the first year I've been involved, and it's a pretty cool idea. And, I thought I would share the evolution of my sketch, which was for any JLA character. and, since I've enjoyed his characterization on the few Brave and the Bold cartoons I've seen, I went with Aquaman.

Here is my initial penciled version for the sketch. Hope you enjoy.