Today we have a very special treat for you, and indeed a very lovely treat for me too, as our latest “director’s commentary” is from a couple of my favourite comics creators, Sandra and John, the folks behind Glasgow’s Metaphrog, which is home to the gorgeous Louis books. The brand new book, Louis: Night Salad, came out just recently and once more drew me into a wonderful dream-like world of colourful, almost child-like fantasy mixed through with something darker and more disturbing (see the review here). It’s a beautiful work, some of their best Louis work actually (and in a very nice little hardback at under a tenner it is a perfect Christmas present, guys, hint, hint) and I’m delighted to welcome John and Sandra here to talk us through some of Night Salad:
The seeds for Louis – Night Salad were sown back in 2003, when we worked on several short stories for different publishers, and also on submission to various anthologies. One story, Louis – The Round the World Rug Race, was accepted by SPX for their travel themed collection.
With Louis – The Round the World Rug Race the story had come relatively quickly and we’d had great fun doing it. Peppered with literary allusions (Round the World in Eighty Days is an obvious one) the travel and adventure theme was something we’d loved working with and had in mind to develop for a future, bigger project.
That was the plan at least when we began to incubate a new graphic novel as we were finishing the Louis – Dreams Never Die project working with FatCat. Then, John’s dad died, and shortly after his mum had to go into hospital. This had an inevitable impact on our lives and on our work. It isn’t possible to avoid writing about one’s own life so the book took a different direction. But, it isn’t just a big book about death for kids! More than anything it’s about the power books have to transport and transform the reader. And, the original story thread of a journey, or an adventure, was retained.
We hoped that the story would open doors to many potential stories, and story archetypes, with a nod to the idea of a quest: as if a window were opened up to a world of possible stories. A real adventure…
The romantic notion of the explorer and of travel has always informed our work but here it is present more clearly than ever. Books are important as they fuel the reader’s inner world, but of course equally important is life experience and although we wanted to allude to books, we also wanted to express the importance of the individual in society and of individual thinking.
Putting literary allusions into a graphic novel is strange and can be great fun because naturally you can use both the words and the images. For example, the caterpillar is not the one that Alice met, but we wanted to suggest Alice In Wonderland, classics of literature and children’s literature… also, with the changes of scale that occur when Louis is feverish, there is the suggestion again of Lewis Carroll’s book but also Gulliver’s Travels.
Definitely the most personal and probably the most influential book was one that not many readers will have heard of and that is the diary that John’s father, David Chalmers, kept while he was on an ordinance survey expedition in Antarctica in the 1950s.
When we first met we had worked together making durable copies of the fragile, original diary and also producing photographs from old slides, involving John’s parents in the process and in so doing allowing others, friends, and family to read the book itself.
Perhaps the influence of this can be most clearly seen here, in a scene, which also commemorates the fact John’s father was a tent maker.
Louis – Night Salad is the book we have worked longest on, and we have both contributed to different aspects of the storytelling: John getting involved in the visual side of the layout and Sandra in the writing itself, as we tried to optimise or maximise the emotional strength of the story, as well as find solutions to the challenges each scene and every page of the book presented.
Where Louis – The Round the World Rug Race had felt enjoyable and relatively easy to realise, Louis – Night Salad was at times darker and more difficult. Pages were worked and reworked, layout was reconsidered until we were both happy with the story fluidity and emotional charge.
More than one third of the book was completely repainted, sometime several times. Some pages, such as the underground city took nearly two weeks to complete!
(the incredibly beautiful, Arabian Nights-esque underground city. Extract from Louis – Night Salad by metaphrog)
With every Louis book, the bright superficial colours are set in stark contrast to the dark machinations of the system Louis is forced to inhabit. This is particularly true in Hamlet where the fences and houses represent a façade of pleasantness and underline the difficulties people have in communicating with each other. The world has become increasingly a place of barriers and fences often separating wealth from poverty, opportunity from disease… With the look of the books being that of children’s books: the little squares of the nine panel comic grid serve to emphasise the childlike appeal and echo the square book shape, but also help establish a reading rhythm. Sometimes in the telling of Louis – Night Salad we wanted to experiment with the form in order to serve the telling of the story. That sounds pretentious and confusing and is probably better explained with a couple of pages.
(Sandra’s art can make even falling ill look beautiful. Extract from Louis – Night Salad by metaphrog)
To focus on Louis and the fact he is falling ill, the most effective method seemed to be that of completely removing the panel backgrounds and borders, thus also trying to generate the feeling illness brings of not being quite able to sense the world around you. It seemed appropriate too as a way to freeze time, or to attempt to suggest timelessness.
Panel shape and size are paramount, of course, in comic storytelling, and we like to compare the visual rhythm with that of music and song structure. You can see this here with the repetition of panels, worry, worry, worry, like musical notes repeated, and the changing water level showing time passing.
(Bear Grylls eat your heart out. Extract from Louis – Night Salad by metaphrog)
With the square panels, a feeling of vertigo, or even that of height itself, proved tricky to generate within the square book format, but by breaking the page up vertically and then using oblique panel borders, to generate unease, as well as changing panel sizes and points of view to simulate disorder, we hoped to be able to facilitate reader involvement, empathy and sympathy with Louis, as he experiences disorientation on the cliffs. Placing the page opposite one with broad panoramic views even heightens the effect.
(Double page spread from Louis – Night Salad by metaphrog)
FPI would like to thank John and Sandra for taking the time to share this insight into making the new Louis book. All images are ©metaphrog 2010; Louis – Night Salad is available now.