Internets, please meet Adam:
Adam is a Maths teacher by day, artist by night and after he graduated in Mathematics several years ago but after finishing his degree he returned to his main passion: comics. Like most people involved and interested in comics he has adored them since childhood, favouring some of the nastier and grittier books on the shelves.
After leaving university he began to concentrate on his skills with a brush and has since been commissioned to paint thousands of square feet of murals at various zoos and aquariums around the country. Whilst happy to dabble in murals, vehicle painting and anything else he can get his grubby hands on, illustration is his main passion and a career in that field is the ultimate goal.
In the Summer of 2009 he was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Comix talent scheme, run by Hi8us in Birmingham, and was tutored by the famous illustrators John McRea and Hunt Emerson. He’s been working full pelt since, his college work helping to keep him supplied in coffee and paints.
His role at Birmingham Metropolitan College is now Maths lecturer and specialist and he uses his artistic tendencies to help people with difficulties overcome their troubles with mathematics. As soon as the last student leaves the room he then crawls off to his studio in the Custard Factory, located in the culture quarter of Birmingham. He burns a good few gallons of midnight oil whilst hammering away at the pages for Empyre and various other publishers, dreaming of a day off and racing against almighty caffeine comedowns.
And he’s loving it.
Adam left his portfolio with us at BICS (Birmingham International Comic Show) last year. I could immediately see that his style would be perfect for an Insomnia book with its intriguing mix of realism and the uncanny, detailed characterisation and emotionally intuitive colour palettes.
With Bristol Expo soon to be upon us it's time to start preparing your portfolio to show us at the event if you would like to be considered as an Insomnia artist.
The first pages of art are flowing in now, and they are beautiful, so this week we have an interview with Stephen where you can find out more about him and the book, and some preview art, pages in progress and sketches from Adam.
Over to you, chaps:
Q: Right then, first things first. Tell the good people about the original concept for Empyre.
A: I always find it difficult to summarise the Empyre, but the elevator pitch is think of the TV show 24 combined with The West Wing, except it’s set in the UK and Downing Street.
It’s about a secret unit that has existed for over 100 years within the government that get involved when others can’t, or when something needs to be sorted quickly and quietly.
Also there’s a supernatural twist to the book that runs through everything. The Prime Minister is one of the main characters and he finds out about this secret unit on his first day in office. So there is a mix of action, but also some walk fast, talk fast political moments.
Q: There is a healthy dose of politics underlying the action. Are there any particular issues you will be exploring in the story?
A: One of the reasons it’s called the Empyre is in reference to the old British Empire, where at one time Britain controlled roughly one quarter of the world’s population.
Nowadays we don’t have that many overseas colonies, as we’ve returned most of them to independence, and Britain is no longer a world leader in any particular industry. Part of this story is about a new secret technology that Britain has developed which is in high demand, so much so that it affects our status on the world stage and the leaders of other nations come knocking on Number 10 for our help.
The Prime Minister must be mindful of how his decisions will not only affect the country during his term in office, but also beyond that for decades to come. It could literally shape the future of the nation.
So, basically a bit of everything, world politics, industry, technology, crime, culture and heritage. There are a lot of layers to the story, but it’s not all splattered on the page, otherwise it just becomes a story bogged down in exposition which is boring. So I’ve tried to find the right balance between politics and action.
Q: Tell us a bit about the main characters that we'll be meeting and following in the story.
A:The two main characters are David Solomon, the Prime Minister, and Alistair Donovan, the leader of this secret group within the government. Both are mature men, loyal patriots and, despite some rather obvious differences, over time they find they have a lot in common.
They both want what is best for the country, first and foremost, which is what helps them get past what divides them.
The Prime Minister has to come to terms with Donovan’s group, what it represents and what it can offer him, and Donovan quickly realises the new PM is a lot sharper than some of his predecessors. So there is an initial period of adjustment and building of trust between them. We see their friendship growing throughout the story, but it’s a bumpy ride as personal issues and politics affect both men.
The rest of the main characters are people out in the field on the action side of the book. They are a revolving cast of specialists who are selected by Donovan for certain jobs. All of them are unique, all highly skilled and each has particular strengths which he puts into play depending on the task. For example, one member of the unit is a former member of the SAS and highly decorated soldier, another is a police officer and expert investigator. We also meet other heads of state and hint at the big picture outside the UK with regards to the secret technology.
A: No doubt, with the political content, readers will look for real life analogues in the story. Will there be any deliberate commentary on real world events?
A: The seeds of all of the main stories are based on real world events, but this is definitely not a political broadcast of any kind.
I’ve been very careful not to mention any particular political party as I don’t want parallels drawn between characters and real world Ministers. Most of whom I wouldn’t trust to look after my toothbrush without getting into trouble.
Every event in the comic that parallels a real world event is fed through a filter, because the two worlds are similar, but also very different in some fundamental ways. So, how an event is handled in the real world might not be possible or even necessary in the Empyre, because of some of the changes that I’ve introduced.
So the story is sort of set in a parallel world, again because of the supernatural element. As you might have guessed there’s something I’m not saying about the story, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise!
I hate preaching and haven’t intended this to be a deliberate commentary and only hope that the story proves to be interesting and thought provoking.
Q: Adam has been working hard to bring your characters to life. Tell us a little bit about your work together.
A: When Adam came on board the script was already finished but I made it very clear that I was open to his ideas.
I’m also very aware of my limitations, in terms of visual storytelling, and as an artist he has a much better eye than me. He knows what works on a page in terms of visual composition, whether we should take out or add in a panel, how to structure and lay out the pages to make them flow better from scene to scene, how to break up dialogue and captions to create beats and so on.
I have an idea of how it will look in my head, but he is the one that really brings it to life on the page. And because there are just the two of us working on the book, it means Adam has complete control of the layout of the entire page, right down to where the word balloons sit.
Every time I receive a sketch or a page of art I’m really excited and very pleasantly surprised as he has managed to add something extra, something I never thought about or some detail that makes it much more alive.
When we were designing the main characters I gave him a couple of famous names as a starting point and then left him to take it in his own direction. After that we went back and forth discussing and refining their look until we were both happy. It’s been a great experience and I can’t wait to see the finished product.
Q:What is it about comics as a medium that made you decide that this was the best way to tell this story?
I started reading comics like many people as a child, where it was all superheroes in tights and punching people in the face. As I grew up and my tastes changed I began to realise just what was possible within the medium and that the creative team is only limited by their imagination and how patient the artist is.
You can do things in comics that are not possible in any other medium and sometimes, not always, you can feel this absence when comics are adapted to film or TV. It’s like there’s something missing, some intangible quality that niggles at you like a tiny piece of glass in your brain.
Comics are unique, you can literally stop time, you can force the reader to focus on a moment, an expression, a word. Scott McCloud does a much better job of describing it than me, but another aspect I particularly like is that comics are quite undiluted, where you can still hear distinct voices. Of course there are editors, but comics don’t go through the meat grinder nearly as much as content for TV, film or novels.
I like that clarity and that made me want to tell my story as a comic.
Q: Tell us a bit about your writing process and how you approach a script
A: I tend to start with an idea or core concept, let it roll around my head for a few weeks or months, and then when it’s bugging me all the time, splat it all down on the page and create a writers bible.
This contains everything, background on characters, technology, locations, themes I want to explore, any particular scenes I want to include and then from that I create a map of the story with milestones.
Based on that I then write the story and make sure I hit all the milestones. The bible is purely there for me and quite often it contains a lot of background information that will never make it onto the page, but it helps me create the world and then write the story. If I’ve done some research it will be in the bible but I’m careful to put as little of it on the page as possible.
I tend to use this milestone structure with everything I write and my favourite part is the sometimes unpredictable way in which I get from one point to another. I have an idea of how to get there, but sometimes in the process of writing it in full, the story takes a surprising turn that I never saw coming, which hopefully also makes it surprising for the reader.
Q: What were your favourite parts of writing the script (if you can do this without major spoilers)
A: My favourite parts were writing the dialogue between the PM and Donovan. There is often a lot more going on than it first appears as each man is used to being in charge, or the smartest person in the room, and suddenly they’re facing someone who is their equal. It keeps them on their toes, it makes them test each other in a number of ways, sometimes petty, just to see how the other person will react. It’s a very complex relationship and their developing friendship is an important part of the story.
Q: What are your favourite comics of all time and why?
A: That’s really hard to answer as I have really eclectic tastes, but five of my best of the best are:
- Alias by Brian Bendis and Michael Gaydos,
- Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon,
- Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore,
- Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
- The Spectre by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake.
Preacher is what Ennis does best. It’s bloody and disgusting, it’s incredibly violent, it’s offensive, it’s an adventure and road trip across America and also a story with real heart. Ennis never shies away from exploring difficult subjects, and even within the confines of what can be a very funny comic, he will get his hands dirty and look at racism or religion.
I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for Terry Moore, not only because he created such a fantastic story that is full of incredible characters, but because he did it all; he wrote, drew and independently published it himself for ninety issues. It’s a massive accomplishment, and it’s something I will go back and read over and over.
Sleeper is an incredibly complex espionage story with double agents, criminals with powers and organised crime syndicates. It was the first time I read a comic by the Eisner winning creative team of Brubaker, Phillips and Staples, which is one I’ve continued to follow with other comics like Criminal and Incognito. The story appeals to me as a fan of the spy genre and it touches on several other areas that I enjoy, so it was a bit of a perfect fit.
John Ostrander is an amazing and extremely accomplished writer and has written literally hundreds of comics, and Tom Mandrake is just a legend. His art is so horrific, creepy and disturbing, and in the Spectre it really is the stuff of nightmares. His five year arc with Ostrander challenges you in every issue. It’s very dark, upsetting, grisly and it often looks at morally difficult and uncomfortable situations. It’s also about religion, faith, vengeance and there is also a tsunami of blood and an inventive way of killing someone in most issues. For me it’s a landmark series and it was also a turning point as it helped me realise the scope of what you can do in comics.
Q: Which writers (in whatever medium) do you most enjoy and find inspirational - and are these the same people?
A: There are a lot of comic writers today that are producing some amazing work, a few of which I’ve already mentioned. Some writers started on creator owned projects and have since moved onto mainstream comics, but many of them are doing both which is a beneficial arrangement for everyone.
I really enjoy their mainstream work but find their creator owned comics even better and more challenging. Examples would be Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, and Brian K. Vaughn. Other writers I like are Brian Wood, Mike Carey, Bryan Talbot, Marc Adreyko, Geoff Johns, B. Clay Moore, Peter David, Mark Millar, Rick Remender, Gail Simone, Mark Waid and many many more.
There are also those who write comics but work in other media like J. Michael Straczynski, who is the creator of one of my favourite TV shows of all time, Babylon 5. He has written for Marvel and now writes for DC, but I really enjoyed his creator owned projects like Rising Stars and Midnight Nation. He is incredibly inspirational and has been a huge influence on me.
Joss Whedon is another guy who is incredibly smart and creative and you never know what he is going to do next.
In TV-land, I really like JJ Abrams the creator of shows like Alias, Lost and Fringe.
Closer to home I enjoy Toby Whithouse’s writing, the creator of Being Human. The writers I most enjoy do tend to be the ones that inspire and influence me, although most of the time it isn’t obvious how.
Q: You're plugged into the comics industry as a creator, as a podcaster and as reader. What do you think are the best things about being involved with comics right now?
A: In my opinion some of the comics being produced today are the best the industry has ever seen. There is still dross out there, and sometimes you have to wander off the beaten path to find the good stuff, but the diversity today is remarkable and comics are now available in every genre you can think of.
Just as TV was once looked on as a poor stepchild to film, comics are no longer only available in specialist shops for dedicated fans. Comics have become mainstream and are available online, via high street bookshops and new mobile devices, delivering content to new audiences all around the world.
Recently we’ve seen a number of A-list Hollywood actors taking long-term contracts on TV because the quality of programmes being produced today is much better than 20 years ago. It’s the same with comics. The writing and artwork has evolved significantly. Stories are more complex and emotionally challenging, and the medium as a whole is gaining recognition as an incredibly creative area that is rich with innovative stories.
In the last 20 years we’ve seen dozens of comic related movies, some of which have been very successful at the box office, such as the Dark Knight. We’ve even seen famous actors, directors and writers from other mediums getting involved with producing comics of their own, or signing up to direct comic-based movies.
The fact that Kenneth Branagh is directing the new Thor movie for Marvel shows you how much things have changed. All of this is putting a spotlight on comics, driving the industry forward and challenging creators to do better, which makes it a brilliant time to be a fan of comics. No one knows what is around the corner but it is a very exciting time in the industry.
Stephen Aryan has been a keen fan of comics since childhood, starting out with mainstream superhero titles before diversifying into other areas and publishers. Since 2007 he has co-hosted Comic Book Outsiders, a podcast dedicated to introducing its listeners to hidden gems from the world of independent comics, movies, books and TV. Through the podcast Stephen has interviewed many comic creators, authors and independent filmmakers. When not writing comics or podcasting, he is busy in pursuit of becoming a full time writer and novelist.
For more from this talented duo you can follow the progress of Empyre on its very own blog, see more of Adam's work on his website and listen to Stephen as co-host of the Comic Book Outsiders podcast.
Essex Book Festival
Last weekend Alasdair Duncan ran one of his now famous library events for the local community as part of the Essex Book Festival.
"Thanks very much to Alex Willmore and Lauren Sharp for representing Insomnia at the Comic Creators workshop at Harlow library on Saturday. Thanks also to Tony Wicks of C2D4 and Peter McLeod of Turning Cog Creations who completed the lively and informative panel for an event which was part of the Essex Book Festival.
The relaxed discussion between the panel and the 25 teenage and adult comic followers was followed by a hands on workshop where many of those attending sought advice and tips on how to take their interests in comics further or completed worksheets prepared by the Lauren, Alex and Tony.
In particular we wish David Hill well with his first appearance at Bristol in 2010 with his comic Glory Be!
The event organisers were extremely pleased and judging by the feedback forms so were the participants. Thanks again to the panel for making such a successful event."
There will also be a children's comic event run by Alasdair at Dunmow library on March 20th between 2 and 4 pm, again as part of the Book Festival.
Sharing The Love
- Don't forget that the Hi Ex show in Scotland is just around the corner if you still want to book tickets.
- The Dark by writer Chris Lynch has now been printed and will have it's launch by Markosia at the Bristol Expo. Chris is doing several signing sessions to promote the book. Details over on his website.
- Our friend Stacey Whittle of the indie podcast Small Press Big Mouth has many more strings to her bow than you can imagine and is often found writing articles and reviews for various blogs and magazine. Check out this piece on What Makes an Independent Comic that she wrote for Hub Magazine issue 113. Food for thought as the industry continues to grow and change.