This October, Dark Horse Comics releases "Cherubs!" a raucous graphic novel written by Bryan Talbot and featuring art by Mark Stafford. Talbot has had a long and distinguished career in comics, beginning with work in the British underground comics scene of the late 1960s and '70s. His work includes "The Adventures of Luther Arkwright," and stints on several serials for "2000 AD," including "Nemesis the Warlock" and "Judge Dredd." He was the recipient of an Eisner award in 1996, for "The Tale of One Bad Rat," and holds several Eagle awards and nominations, not to mention an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Sunderland.
"Cherubs!" tells the story of five cherubim who, having been accused of committing the first murder in Heaven, escape to New York City. The journey takes the cherubs through the bowels of the city and into Hell itself in an attempt to delay the Apocalypse, all while riffing on references ranging from Milton to Robocop and Amy Winehouse with a stinging sense of humor.
Comic Book Resources spoke with Talbot on the development of "Cherubs!" and the ongoing influence of his early years in underground comics on his career today.
CBR News: First off, can you tell us a little about "Cherubs!" and how it might relate to some of your previous work?
Bryan Talbot: "Cherubs!" is a supernatural comedy-adventure about a bunch of gonzo cherubim who escape to New York on the eve of the apocalypse of Revelations after being blamed for the first murder in Heaven. There, hotly pursued by two seraphim enforcers, they discover a whole supernatural underworld that, on the whole, is beneath the perception of the human inhabitants.
It's a fun and exciting story and, amid the anarchy, there are pastiches and references to many movies, from Dirty Harry and Woody Allen films to "The Warriors" and "Robocop."
You began your career working in the underground comics scene of the 1970s. In what ways, if at all, do you feel that the culture of underground or alternative comics has continued to influence "Cherubs!" and other recent work?
It's most definitely influenced "Cherubs!" and most of all my subsequent work. All my early underground comics were basically psychedelic comedy-adventures. If "Cherubs!" had been published 30 or 40 years ago, it would have been an underground. Although it deals with religious myth and imagery, it's totally irreverent and pokes fun at many aspects of organized religion.
Do you perceive there to be (or to have been, historically) much of a difference between British comics and American comics, underground or otherwise?
That's a question that deserves an essay, rather than a few lines. The US comic scene has been dominated by the superhero genre for many decades. UK kids' comics were based around weekly anthologies of either heroic adventure stories featuring soldiers, cowboys, Robin Hood-types or spacemen or short humor strips. There's a strong tradition in those comics of the anarchic anti-establishment gang, best exemplified by Leo Baxendale's "The Bash Street Kids" and "The Banana Bunch" − working class children who always got the better of their parents, teachers, policemen or park-keepers. I guess that tradition informs "Cherubs!"
The first half of this story was originally published in 2007 as "Cherubs!: Paradise Lost," by Desperado. This edition, published by Dark Horse, collects that first story along with the recently completed second half, "Hell on Earth." How do you feel about revisiting this work, and presenting it for a new audience?
The whole "Cherubs!" story was originally developed around 2000 as an adult cartoon serial, a concept for a web animation company that went bust. It was several years later that it occurred to me that it could easily be adapted to comics.
It'll be great to see the complete story out there at last. I scripted "Hell on Earth" in 2007, as soon as Mark finished the first half. It's taken him so long because he's done it all in his spare time. His day job is cartoonist-in-residence at the Cartoon Museum in London, and he's also a freelance illustrator.
How does your process shift between a work like "Grandville," in which you handle the writing and art yourself, versus "Cherubs!" in which you are working with another artist?
I knew that I wanted it in a cool, streetwise cartoony style and immediately thought of Mark, whose work I've loved for years. He's the top UK indy cartoonist and he was ideal for the job. I've scripted for other people in the past and, on the whole, have been really disappointed and very upset with the results. Working with Mark on "Cherubs!" has been the totally opposite experience. He really has excelled himself, and I'm deliriously happy with the result. I think that that's partly because I know his work, his style, and was very deliberately writing it for him to draw. Also, I did all of the page layouts and panel breakdowns in rough, so it was a very close collaboration, resulting in a perfect match of script and art.
Mark always managed to bring something extra to each scene, above and beyond my descriptions. For example, a two-page sequence in "Hell on Earth" is a simultaneous pastiche of the opening scene of "The Bride of Frankenstein," the opening scene of "Terminator" and the opening scene of "Waiting for Godot!" Mark then added another layer by making the two winos involved caricatures of Walter Matthau and Wilfrid Brambell and introducing an Amy Winehouse costume!
Can you speak to some of your literary or artistic influences and how they might be informing this work? I'm thinking, most specifically, about William Blake, of whom you've spoken in past interviews, and there's the clear reference to Milton as well.
Yes, more Milton than Blake. The climactic part of "Hell on Earth" follows the Cherubs as they descend through the circles of Hell in an attempt to stop the ritual which frees the Devil from his eternal imprisonment there, allowing him to walk the Earth. Their guide, of course, is Virgil. Except he's a skit on Steve Buscemi from "Escape from LA!"
Movies have been a big influence and several times in the script I indicated the atmosphere or shot from a certain film. On one occasion I asked for the setting to look like the rooftop in the penultimate scene of "Bladerunner." We do reference Gustave Doré's Milton illustrations.
"Cherubs!" is referencing, or satirizing, a huge swath of popular culture, as well as historical works of literature and art. What's driving this glorious, omnivorous, mash-up?
Basically, wanting to have fun! "Cherubs!" is a romp through religious myth and horror/fantasy movie tropes with a gonzo boy gang throwing a spanner in the works that probably goes back to "Angels with Dirty Faces."
How do you feel humor, or absurdity, is operating in this work?
Comedy is notoriously difficult to analyze, so I'll leave that to the reader. It does make me laugh out loud though! One reviewer of "Paradise Lost" described it as "pants-wettingly funny". There is a strong strain of English absurdist humor running through it and some parts are very definitely Monty Pythonesque.
In thinking about humor, I'm also thinking a little about that reference to "Waiting for Godot," which is both oddly hilarious and crushingly oppressive and tragic. It seems like, and maybe this is stating the obvious, humor can be used as something of an access point for heavier subject matter -- the potential end of the world, or the question of the existence of Heaven, and that if it does exist it might, in fact, be the dullest place in existence.
I think that you've put your finger on it there. On a basic level, I think that it may lead some readers to reconsider their fundamental concepts of just what heaven and hell really are, and force the question "Does this stuff make sense?"
On the other hand, I just hope that they enjoy the ride.
"Cherubs!" debuts in October from Bryan Talbot, Mark Stafford and Dark Horse Comics.