Monday, 15 June 2009

Burke and Hare: Under The Skin

As promised this week we catch up with Martin Conaghan for a peek inside the creative process that lead to Burke and Hare, and from there, the idea of the Vigil "bio-graphic novels" imprint.

Before we start, though, Burke and Hare is now available to pre-order on Amazon.

Right then - Take it away Martin...

You've been crafting Burke and Hare for a long time now. When did you first become interested in the story.

My earliest recollection of Burke and Hare was from my childhood, where I had been given the impression that the Irish duo were graverobbers.

And you've been working on your version for around 15 years, is that right?

Yes, back in the 1990s I was approached by Caliber Comics in the USA to submit an idea for their proposed 'Gothic' line of graphic novels, and among the suggestions was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story 'The Bodysnatcher' - which I picked as my book.

What was it that inspired you to choose Burke and Hare in particular, and why has the interest stayed with you for so long?

After digging up some research of my own, I soon found out Stevenson's story was pure fiction - albeit classic stuff.

His story depicted a couple of 19th century Edinburgh graverobbers who resort to murder to keep up the demand for medical cadavers - but when I found out the true story of Burke and Hare, I realised I had stumbled on something much bigger, and more shocking. As far as history is concerned, the duo never set foot in a graveyard with the intention of stealing a corpse...

Burke and Hare were murderers - plain and simple.

So, from what originally appeared to be nothing more than a ghoulish bedtime story, I found myself immersed in the history of Enlightenment Edinburgh of the 1820s and the case of Britain's most prolific serial killers, which has more twists, turns and horrifying moments than most modern horror fiction.

What do you hope your work will bring to the Burke and Hare story now?

The biggest misconception about the case has persisted for over one hundred years; that Burke and Hare were graverobbers-turned-murderers. The misapprehension can be almost entirely blamed on Robert Louis Stevenson for his depiction of the duo in The Bodysnatcher.

Almost everyone I speak to about the case provide anecdotes about graverobbing, and it's something that has never truly left the public's consciousness.

Everyone knows who Burke and Hare were, but few people know what they did.

Our book will rectify that - but it will go further than the traditional biographies of Burke and Hare's deeds, in that it will depict their actions visually without overly fictionalising the story or embellishing it with exaggerations.

An awful lot of research has gone into this book in your search for historical veracity. Can you tell a little more about that?

For me, the research process has spawned over 15 years. I started the book in the 1990s, but it was never published because Caliber ceased publishing. In that time, I've uncovered new books written about the subject, movies, documentaries, TV dramas, plays, audio plays, newspaper articles and individual anecdotes.

While researching the case at Edinburgh University I was able to take a look at one of the original anatomical sketches made of one of the later victims - and, of course, we got to stare into the face of William Burke himself when the medical faculty at Edinburgh University granted us permission to view his skeleton.

Life masks were also taken of the duo (with Burke's death mask also being taken), so we had the opportunity to gaze right into their faces as they would have been in 1828.

Will and I also wanted to make sure that our story was as faithful as possible to the era, with proper visualisations of the Edinburgh streets and accurate representations of all the real-life figures that appear in our narrative.

In one case, Will went to the extraordinary lengths of finding a national portrait gallery image of all the MPs in Westminster in 1829 in order to find a headshot of Sir George Sinclair - who only appears in five panels in the book. It was important for us to make sure that people could really grasp a sense of the era, rather than just being lazy about it and guessing our way through the artwork.

You mention that Burke and Hare have made appearances in many media over the years. Why did creating comic version of this particular story appeal to you, and what can it offer that is specific and different?

You can give the reader the opportunity to stop mid-narrative and go back (or forward) in the story and review what they have witnessed, or glimpse the future before it happens. Even with a DVD, a viewer can't jump to the end of a movie and contextualise it with the start - with comics, the reader can see, feel and watch the characters move from one scene to the next - and go back and review it over, and over again until they see things they didn't see the first time around.

It appealed to me because it was all true, and it flew in the face of the perceived knowledge about the case - so I wanted to address history properly and present an account of the facts in as straightforward a fashion as possible, in a very accessible medium.

You made visits to Edinburgh, where the majority of the Burke and Hare story takes place, in the course of your research. What was it like to walk the same streets as your characters?

Edinburgh is a mesmerising city, split between the dark, cavernous Old Town and the bright, clean New town - so it's the ideal location for a story like this. Of course, we sampled some of Edinburgh's famous pubs and wandered through the old town archways, which really give you a feel for the haunts Burke and Hare must have frequented.

Will and I went on a couple of Edinburgh jaunts - wandering the streets frequented by Burke and Hare and visiting the locations that still remain to this day. However, many of the original buildings have been demolished and replaced, so we had to find illustrations or photographs that approximated 19th century Edinburgh, and in some cases we simply had to make a guess

Does the fact that Insomnia is also based in the city have any bearing on the book being offered to, and then published, by them?

Insomnia have strong links to Scotland, and Edinburgh, so it seemed logical to offer an Edinburgh-based story to a company that was actively seeking out fresh ideas and original concepts.

How do you view Burke and Hare now after spending so much time in their company? Have they been unfairly treated by history?

Personally, I find it difficult to view Burke and Hare under any other light than pure evil. Much of the anecdotal evidence points towards Hare being a bit of an unpredictable psycho, with Burke being an affable bloke with a good line in patter and song. However, it's a mistake to try and view people as devious and callous as Burke and Hare in any other light than pure, evil villains.

They murdered 16 innocent people in cold blood and denied them the dignity of a proper burial. Worse still, their victims suffered the ultimate indignity of being publicly dissected for the purposes of medical science.

They lured their victims to a lodging house with the offer of free booze, got them drunk, smothered them to death - then carted off their lifeless corpses to Dr Robert Knox at 10 Surgeon's Square in Edinburgh, where they were dissected in the name of science for an agreed fee - and they did it 16 times in 12 months.

What they did was unforgivable, in my view - it doesn't matter if Burke was a good singer or a great storyteller. The 1970s biographer Hugh Douglas described them as "fiends out of Hell." Few would disagree with his assessment.

Did justice prevail in the end?

Burke was hanged for his crime - while Hare was given immunity from the law in return for turning King's Evidence against his accomplice - and his body was publicly dissected, with his bones being kept on permanent display in remembrance of his crime.

However, the injustice of it all is that Hare was given his freedom for grassing on his accomplice - while the medical establishment carried on their work with impunity. However, even though Dr Robert Knox was never charged with any wrong-doing, his career as a medical lecturer deteriorated badly after the events, and his punishment lasted for the rest of his life in every sense.

Was there anything good to come out of this dark little episode of history?

If there's anything to be learned from what the duo did, it's at the heart of our medical establishment - their behaviour brought about changes in the law as it relates to the donation of corpses for medical science.

You work as a journalist for the BBC. Have the skills and techniques you have developed while there helped you in the research process at all?

Burke and Hare really required a thirst for historical facts, although I'm not particularly a history buff, I love trivia and I'm obsessed with facts. However, the most important skill I've brought with me to comics is my experience in production and journalism at the BBC.

The Beeb's disciplined approach to detail, writing, fact-checking and whittling down information to its purest form has taught me more in the past 10 years than anything else. the BBC is also one of the world's greatest storytelling organisations - whether it's news, sci-fi, drama or radio few others can beat the BBC. You quickly learn how to tell a story well.

Much, if not most, of entertainment media is based in fiction. How did you approach bringing real people to life, and did you find the fact that they had once lived helpful or a constraint artistically?

Fictional characters usually need to be based on real-life characters in order to sound believable - or they require a fertile imagination to breathe life into them.

With Burke and Hare, everything was there for us to use; court transcripts, official confessions, newspaper reports, individual accounts, sketches, court drawings, broadsides and fiction. All we needed to do in terms of bringing the duo to life was wind them up and let them go.

In many ways, we could have left the artwork unlettered and readers would still understand the story. It's so vivid and real that you can almost smell the backstreets of Edinburgh.

It was difficult to understand what life was like in the 1800s. Of course, it's really not much different from life now - except we have transport, technology and consumerism running our lives.

The poverty played a big role in people's lives - but they didn't know anything else. They spoke to each other much as we do, they ate, drank, told stories, sang songs, moaned, read books, played games and had relationships. To them, they only knew their time - we have the benefit of history to make sense of it all.

I simply wrote the story as I saw it; these two men took advantage of Edinburgh's poor waifs and strays, then murdered them. I wanted to capture that in our story, and I wanted people to see how terrible and sad it was that 16 lives were extinguished through pure greed and malice.

Language , grammar and social conventions are always changing. How did you approach the idea of getting an authentic sound and feel of the times, while not letting that intrude into, or disrupt, the actual storytelling?

Language was an area that I wanted to get right, but not to force it down people's throats. Burke and Hare were Irishmen, so they would have had thick accents that were not influenced by television or radio. However, Irish people often speak politely and pronounce their words with clear diction - they just happen to do it with a melodic charm.

Similarly, the Edinburgh folk of the time - from the street urchins to the upper classes - all had their own ways of speaking, with common slang and Scots variations of words like about/aboot - so I've tried to convey the various accents as faithfully as possible without overdoing it.

There must have been times when there were no recorded sources to rely on. How much did you allow yourselves to "fill in the gaps" with fiction, and was it ever tempting to "spice things up" for a more satisfying story?

Inevitably, there are gaps in stories like this. History is the version of events everyone eventually agrees on, and the history of Burke and Hare is full of claim and counter-claim. All of the official documents are still available to view in the national library, but many of the individual accounts of the time are no longer available. So, we had to make some leaps in terms of filling in the gaps.

It was necessary to fictionalise some individual encounters or dialogue, and we inserted some fanciful notions of our own in order to propel the story forward. However, we did so with a strong sensibility towards the facts, the available research and strong hunches.

I have to admit though, it was fun taking liberties with tenuous links to other historical events and making them my own.

It can be too tempting to get carried away with the lives of people who are no longer around to refute your claims, so we had to find the balance between comparing all the facts and deciding which were the most accurate and simply telling a coherent story.

I think we found the balance by leaving certain aspects of the story to the reader's imagination and letting the visuals tell other important parts of the tale.

The artwork in Burke and Hare is stunning. It is as if the script has sprung to life on the page. You must have worked so closely with Will Pickering it may be hard to tell where one of you ends and the other begins now. Tell us a bit more about that.

All good creative partnerships are based on compromise. People think compromise means giving something up, but for me, it means getting something you didn't have before you formed the partnership.

I can't draw, but I can write - and Will is a fantastic, imaginative artist. He's also a placid, easy-going, contemplative, and educated character - which makes him perfect for a book steeped in research and history.

In terms of how we've worked together - I sent Will the script, we met once and discussed what could work - then we made the Edinburgh trip. Apart from that I've left him to it. My scripts can vary between detailed panel descriptions, to nothing at all describing a scene - and Will understands what the story needs.

I always feel the burden of effort is often on the artist in a comic, but, of course, the writer needs to create the thing in the first place - but Will's contribution is arguably more substantive than mine. I only have to write it - he has to make it come to life.

The book design is incredibly distinctive and is already attracting a lot of attention. Did you have a concept in mind for the look of the finished product from the start?

It was important for me that the book looked and felt 'of the era' - that it had the hallmark of the 19th century - from the cover logo, to the interior fonts, the lettering and the loose, scratchy or 'engraved' feel to the artwork. I'm somewhat obsessive about how these things look, so I've been involved every step of the way in terms of design and layout - including Rian Hughes' amazing cover and logo, and the beautiful handwritten style of the lettering.

And the obligatory comics creator interview question: Who are your influences, and what are you reading right now?

It's no secret that we were heavily influenced by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's 'From Hell' in creating Burke and Hare. Of course, Alan Moore is a genius, and Eddie Campbell is one of the most original talented artists in comic-book history - so there's no comparison.

I'm a big Grant Morrison fan, but I love Alan Moore, Pete Milligan, Mark Millar, Brian K Vaughn and Robert Kirkman - all great storytellers who fully understand the comics medium and produce stories that play to its strengths.

I'm currently reading 'Scalped', 'The Walking Dead', 'Kick-Ass' and 'Hellblazer'. My favourite artists are Frank Quitely, Steve Yeowell, Duncan Fegredo, Charlie Adlard and Sean Phillips.

To sum it all up then, what do you think is the appeal of Burke and Hare for comics readers?

I believe it appeals - not just to me - but to a wider audience - because it contains so many of the basic themes of classic fiction with the added bonus that it's all verifiable and true; murder, intrigue, cover-ups, conspiracies and mystery. The story had such an impact on the people of Edinburgh - and beyond - that it still resonates over 180 years later; our medical educational establishment is founded on the basis of Burke and Hare's crimes, and people still fear the idea of being kidnapped and harvested for medical science.

Burke and Hare will be released on 6th of October.

And that has got me all ready for my visit to Bodyworlds this week

Kronos City, Now in Colour

Last week we had the first page of pencils for Kronos City. Now you see how they will look in glorious technicolour.

The colours are by Lauren Anne Sharp who has just graduated from the North Wales School of Art and Design.

Lauren was recently highly commended in the Macmillan awards for Children’s Picture Book Illustration. This is one of the most important of the awards for work in children’s books and has become something of an institution, being the only award of its kind that gives students an opportunity to work creatively to a professional brief and, if they are successful, to exhibit their work before peers and publishers at the annual winners and commended entries exhibition.

Kronos City now has a blog of its own where you can follow the book's development.

The Indifference Engine Update

The art team has now been signed up for The Indifference Engine by Cy Dethan.

Robert Carey will be the penciller, Melanie "Cancertown, Average Joe" Cook will be doing colours, and letters will be by me, Nic Wilkinson.

More on this as it happens - for now here is a link to the story outline on Cy's website.

Unbelievable Interview

Don't forget to listen in to Sci-Fi Pulse Radio on Sunday June 21st for an interview with Unbelievable creator Simon Wyatt.

Off on holiday for a week now, but when I return I will have news of the Cancertown Triple Header.

Be afraid.

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