At November's Thought Bubble Sequential Arts Festival in Leeds, UK comics publisher Blank Slate Books staged the official launch of "Nelson," a new book which playfully blurs the line between graphic novel and anthology. Stalwart British comics artist Rob Davis had the ambitious idea of bringing together the very best of the UK's cartooning talents to work on one narrative, ultimately gathering 54 of them to tell the story of one woman's life from 1968 to the present day. He and his co-editor, the equally stalwart Woodrow Phoenix, brought together a line-up of artists that show how the UK comics scene is enjoying something of an explosion in original graphic novel, small press and webcomics publishing; as well as a liberal sprinkling of contributors who should be very familiar to US comic readers such as Sean Phillips, Duncan Fegredo, Philip Bond, Dave Taylor, Glynn Dillon, Warren Pleece and Simon Gane.
Davis' career path is somewhat typical of UK creators of his generation, producing the semi-legendary fanzine "Slang" around the same time Phil Bond and Warren Pleece were doing the same on "Atomtan" and "Velocity," respectively. Just as his peers were working on "Kid Eternity" and "Shade The Changing Man" at Vertigo, by the early '90s Davis was also working on a post-"Watchmen" reinvention of a major comics icon. Davis was simultaneously deconstructing the mythos of the classic British footballing comic "Roy Of The Rovers," introducing themes of legacy and social realism to the adventures of the sporting hero with the improbably long career.
Like many working in the field, Davis left comics during the implosion of the mid-'90s to working for newspapers and children's book publishers, including the beloved Horrible Histories series. In the first volume of Davis' recently published adaptation of "Don Quixote," his biography says, "In recent years Rob has returned to comics, convinced of the untapped potential of the medium and inspired by the resurgence of British comics." Davis has been remarkably prolific during this return, not just producing "Don Quixote" and an adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" for another cornerstone of the UK graphic novel publishing boom, Self Made Hero, but writing and drawing strips for "Doctor Who Monthly;" producing work for the assorted "Huzzah!" round-robin webcomics; and providing short-stories for Tom Humberstone's "Solipsistic Pop" anthologies.
His work since his return to comics reveals a man on a mission, and "Nelson" is a book with a very real, didactic agenda. Davis wants to grab you by the lapels and show you how good comics can be. "Nelson" is also a book with a strong national identity, featuring British pop cultural references sure to delight and warm the cockles of a UK readership of a certain age range. That said, the sheer amount of internationally popular creators in the mix is bound to bring a level of interest in the book from outside, especially once reviews of the book start to roll in.
For a character whose life is told through the work of 54 disparate creators, Nel Baker is a remarkably singular creation. An avatar who lives out the collective autobiography of the entire UK comics scene, she seems destined to become one of the great British comic icons, and is maybe the best female comic character created by a male cartoonist since Jaime Hernandez introduced the cast of his "Locas." As loveable as Hopey, as indefatigable as Maggie, "Nelson" is a remarkable project that could have easily been a well-meaning disaster but instead turned out to be an artistic triumph. It also has the added benefit of knowing the publisher's proceeds, as well as those of many prominent UK retailers, are going to a very worthwhile charity, at a time of the year when that charity needs it most. CBR News spoke with Davis amidst his hectic schedule to discuss his work on "Nelson," balancing it with other projects, and the book's charitable contributions.
CBR News: In many ways, this is the anthology that Twitter built, isn't it? The discussions that influenced you to start this project, finding a publisher, approaching the contributors, a lot of that was all done via the ubiquitous micro-blogging platform.
Davis: Without Twitter there would be no "Nelson." As you know, Twitter is a kind of hub for British comics folk -- the combination of Twitter and blogging has connected me with a vast network of like-minded comic makers and readers. It often provides the platform for big debates about the medium with all and sundry chipping in.
In the autumn of 2010 we discussed at length the idea of a 'best of British' collection, not unlike the Best American Comics collections. As I remember, most of the names we wanted to include then are in "Nelson." I'm sure you can tell me any we missed.
The UK comics industry's love of the anthology abides, but this is a rather neat innovation to the format you came up with, imposing a narrative structure throughout it. How did that come about, and was it easy to match the talent to the various stages of Nel's life?
British comics are all about anthology titles: the Beano, The Eagle, 2000AD, Viz, etc., etc. It's the form that we are familiar with and a form that I always intended to use in order to tell my own stories. My own unfinished graphic novel, "Dinlos," is precisely that -- a collection of strips much like an old Whizzer and Chips annual, that uses the separate strips as chapters that unite to create a novel. So it was a natural extension for me to want to take a 'best of British' anthology and turn it into a complete story.
The difference here would be getting every creator to write their own chapter in order, like a crazy relay race or a game of consequences. The "Huzzah" project set up by Ian Culbard, Dave Taylor and Colin Fawcett that I took part in was an inspiration for this. The scheme we came up with for "Nelson" involved each creator receiving the PDF of what preceded their chapter -- a combination of finished work, roughs and scripts -- then having three days to pin down an idea for the events in the day they chose, from the year they were given. How involved Woodrow and I were at this stage changed from one creator to the next. Once we had their three days' work we passed it on to the next creator. And then wonderful Kayla Hillier (and later the equally wonderful Martin Steenton) chased each creator for deadlines. Matching talent to specific years was pretty clear in my head from the start. I knew Woodrow and I would start the book and we both have a 1960s aesthetic, so that fit well. One or two people asked for specific years, I remember Philip Bond was set on 1982 from the off. Overall I knew that some of our Beano/Dandy/kids' book talents would be suited to Nel's childhood, some of the more indie comic folk would give us a teens and twenties feel, and so on. Within that there were also certain combinations I wanted to put next to each other for effect. And then some things just worked out right by pure luck as we had to make the odd rejig because of deadlines.
You've been editing this project while simultaneously putting volume one of your "Don Quixote" adaptation to bed. Your workload must have been back-breaking of late.
I started drawing the first "Nelson" chapter in December with six months of "Quixote" still ahead of me, so the two books ran alongside one another for much of the time. My life was in total collapse during that time as well, but the funny thing is I found the manic energy of all those late nights working, and hair-pulling episodes editing "Nelson," the greatest fun. I guess it's a bit like when the old people tell you they were happiest during the war. Strangely enough it was after I finished "Quixote" and "Nelson" headed into the home straight that I struggled, mainly due to trouble at home, but Woodrow steered the ship safely in and took a lot of the flak for me.
How did you and Phoenix divvy up the editorial tasks? Did you find yourself developing into a good cop/bad cop partnership?
Short answer is that Woodrow was the bad cop. Woodrow designed the book with occasional input from me, we both worked on every strip editorially -- if we both had the same response to it we backed our instincts, if we disagreed we just argued our cases until one of us convinced the other. We're both pretty hardheaded, but neither of us have a big ego about this stuff after years and years of being bashed by the business, so we always put the book first. Most of the time I had a vision of where the book was, how it was going, and if something hit a wrong note I knew straight away. When we started each creator on their chapter I would add a few words about where we were in the book and occasionally something on the kind of chord I felt we'd need to strike. No one was obliged to follow these briefs and quite often people didn't, but even if it didn't give people something to work with, it gave them something to work against. In truth, each chapter, each creator, required a different approach -- some just knew what they wanted to do and did it with little or no involvement for Woods and I, others were happy to go back and forth, or let us rework dialogue for them.
Obviously that process wasn't always smooth, and there were a few fraught episodes and the odd falling out, but that just meant everyone cared about what they were doing. If that was the way to get the best book we could, then so be it. Mark, you've read the whole book, so you can tell me if you disagree. I think everyone in the book rose to this unprecedented challenge and they all produced inspirational and original strips that fit together beautifully, giving us an unparalleled vision of the state of UK comics, a person created out of the lives and talents of those creators and a complete novel.
I agree completely. In fact, I think you've pulled off something of a magic trick, creating a tapestry out of what should have been a patchwork. With such a star-powered list of contributors, I did wonder if there was a "one that got away." Is there anyone you actively pursued who ultimately couldn't commit?
We got a 'yes' from pretty much everyone we asked. I think there were just three people who said no because they were too busy, and one of them joined us towards the end anyway when we lost two contributors who were part of the original list. There were two 'big names' who very much wanted to be part of the book. Both of them struggled to find the time to commit and we had push on without them in the end. One person we did pursue quite hard was Posy Simmonds. Both Woodrow and I really wanted her to be part of the book, and although her contribution is small, it was important to us and pretty much everyone else in this book to have her in it. Same goes for Hunt Emerson. I badly wanted Hunt to be part of this.
I can see why -- they both maintain unique positions in the world of UK cartooning, artists who've worked widely outside of comics, with styles automatically recognized by British readers even if they don't know their names. with careers of amazing longevity. I realize this is like asking a parent to name their favorite offspring, but do you have any personal favorite contributions?
I remember when we only had four strips in, and they were partly unfinished -- we had mine finished, Woodrow's script, Ellen Lindner's script and Jamie Smart's finished (he's quick!). It was when I saw the combination of those four, with Woodrow's bringing us such horror, Ellen's giving us the inner life of a 1960's mother and Jamie's bringing our lead character to life that I believed it could actually work. So, whilst I don't have a favorite, I have a real fondness for Jamie's because when I looked at the finished pages I thought, "Oh my God, this is actually going to work!!!"
I'm unsurprised Jamie Smart turned in his work that quickly since he's an artist who seems to be doing several webcomics all at the same time, while simultaneously contributing a few pages a week to "The Dandy," and all those massive "Where's Waldo"-styled Doctor Who illustrations for Panini. Did anyone's work surprise you, or end up throwing the narrative in directions you didn't expect? I'll tell you what surprised me, Faz Choudhury's scatological contribution! I thought he was such a nice boy, knowing only his work for the kid's publisher DFC/Phoenix.
Faz's surprised us too. But it is very funny and strangely touching. It's probably the most disgusting and at the same time most romantic chapter in the book. There were constant surprises in the story, right from the off with Woodrow's savage twist, but there were certain creators who just plain shocked me with what they sent back. Kate Brown springs to mind. Dunno what I expected but it wasn't that. A wonderful chapter, a favorite for many people already.
I notice themes, phrases and images from the early stories recurring in later stories. Did that evolve naturally, or was it ruthlessly coordinated by you and Phoenix?
I think the opposite may be true there. It was the aspect that most contributors got their teeth into -- they liked riffing off other artists' strips and ideas, they all enjoyed repeating themes and including little nods to previous chapters. Woodrow and I spent more time trying to rein that in, to stop it [becoming] too self-referential, than we did trying to get people to stick more closely to what had preceded.
Reading the book, I was struck by the amount of contributors who started out on UK non-genre anthologies from the late-'80s such as "Escape," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Deadline," "Crisis," "Revolver" and more. Given hindsight, is that period looking like some kind of golden age? Is "Nelson" consciously evoking that era of the "neurotic boy outsider" (only, like, with a bird)?
In a word: no. I only ever bought one copy of "Deadline," and that was because it had a Mick McMahon cover. I was never a reader of the other titles, although I was aware of them. What I got from being a contemporary of them was a belief that it was possible to do what you wanted in British comics and that there was a readership there for you. There wasn't, as it turned out, and the enthusiasm we all had back then created something of a false dawn rather than a 'Golden Age.' I think I was more inspired by American stuff like "Eightball" than I was the British stuff, no slight on the British comics of that time which were mostly excellent. For a lot of comic creators there's a point where your taste in books, movies, music, etc seems to outgrow what genre comics offer, and you want to make comics that are less restricted and narrow. To do that you need a readership really, unless you're living off an inheritance or a massive lottery win. I don't know how big the existing readership is today or how big the potential one could be, but if it can sustain the kind of creators we have in "Nelson" then I would have to go along with Scott McCloud and say this is the Golden Age of comics. In terms of the variety, originality and quality I see coming from all directions on a daily basis, it's hard to see any other age competing.
I consciously set out to avoid bringing too many boys of a similar age and set of interests together. One, because that doesn't reflect the comics being made in Britain and two, because there's no future in that vision for comics. Mark Millar may disagree. I'm familiar with his opinion that there are no women in the top 50 comic creators in Britain. Well, there are 14 women contributors in "Nelson," so I beg to differ. Conversely you will have noticed how many of the contributors are coming from genre comics and it's just as much of a treat seeing the likes of Duncan Fegredo and Dan McDaid tackling something this naturalistic as it is seeing creators from kiddie books and Dandy/Beano world contributing to such an adult tale.
I think it's fair to say that "Nelson" sets its own parameters and the central character is a reflection of all of us now, there is no intention to hark back to any other age, nor any need to.
I wanted to close by touching on the charitable aspect of the project. Is it a "which came first, the chicken or the egg" thing? Did the homelessness plot threads suggest donating the book's profits to Shelter, or did the decision to donate the book's profits to charity suggest the book's themes? Was Shelter chosen due to any particular impulse such as being close to your (or Phoenix's) heart?
The charity idea was Kenny [Penman's, publisher of Blank Slate Books]. It made sense to me and Shelter was our first choice. The homeless stirrings in the book came about naturally rather than being imposed by us. Ironically, after completing "Nelson" and separating from my wife (the two things aren't linked, at least that's what I keep telling myself!) we had difficulty maintaining the mortgage and my wife had to go to Shelter for assistance.
"Nelson" is available everywhere in softcover with a limited-edition hardcover available through Blank Slate. An even more rare, limited-edition softcover with a signed and numbered Frank Quitely bookplate is available exclusively from Gosh! London.