Occasional Forbidden Planet International blog contributor Matt Badham recently decided to have a chat with scriptwriting team Leah Moore and John Reppion about their latest project, The Thrill Electric, which just started posting on Channel 4’s site last week. The result was the following interview:
MB: How did you come up with the idea for The Thrill Electric?
Leah: It was actually one of those mythic “sit bolt upright in bed and have to write it all down” moments, which, to be honest, I’ve never had before and didn’t really believe in either. I’d been looking at an amazing website about the telegraph and must have read almost all of it in one day. I found it fascinating that way back in the 1800s people had a form of instant messaging. That small fact kind of changed the whole way I’d thought about the whole of the Nineteenth Century! I’d previously thought of them all as very ponderous old men, sitting in their gloomy studies growing huge sideburns and being philanthropic.
If you introduce what was effectively a Victorian Internet into that idea then they become much more recognisably modern, feeling people. The other thing that really struck me was the fact that it was a really big breakthrough industry for women getting into the workplace. It was a clean respectable, white-collar job that young girls and women could get into and rise through the ranks of. I couldn’t stop thinking about this really modern story, of a girl starting her new job at the telegraph office. It just seemed so cool to me.
MB: How did it come to be placed with Channel 4?
John: We got an email out of the blue from Andrew Mettam at Hat Trick Productions saying he liked our work and that he’d like to meet up and discuss the possibility of us working with them on something to pitch to Channel 4 Education. We knocked a few rough ideas together to show him the kind of thing we thought would be interesting and educational for 14 to 19 year-olds, and The Thrill Electric was one of them. Andrew really liked what we’d come up with and was keen for us to push things forward. Within weeks we were down in London meeting with Hat Trick and pitching our ideas with them to Channel 4. The Thrill Electric was the one that everyone seemed to really love. Within a couple of months of Andrew contacting us we had an agent and had signed the contract to write the series. It’s all very exciting.
MB: I’ve been describing The Thrill Electric to myself as a ‘motion comic’, but it’s not is it? It’s an enhanced digital comic. But what’s the difference?
John: Up to this point in time, motion comics have largely been stories that have already been printed in the normal format and then later been digitised and enhanced to add something a bit extra. This has resulted in some of them basically turning into sub-par animations, complete with dodgy voice acting.
Because we’ve written The Thrill Electric specifically as an enhanced digital comic, we’ve been able to stick to what we see as the fundamentals of comic-book storytelling – pages, panels, word balloons, captions – and add extra layers. So, we have things like sound-loops for each panel that set the scene and provide a bit of ambience; we have panels stacking up one in front of another to form corridors, or becoming the walls of a 3D space; we have clickable icons serving the same function as old-fashioned thought balloons, allowing you to see what a character is thinking.
We’re not trying to hide the fact that it’s a comic by adding a load of bells and whistles. We’re trying to make it everything a print comic is and more. Even though the reader for The Thrill Electric was purpose-built for the project by LittleLoud, we’ve ended up pushing it to the limits of what it’s capable of, which can only be a good thing.
MB: Why did you go for that approach, rather than a ‘straight’ comic or animation?
Leah: I think it’s appropriate for Thrill to be like that, because, like the protagonist, it’s embracing the surge in technology. We wanted Thrill to be available to its audience in an accessible form, so they can read it on their phones, their tablet PCs or Ipads. You often get existing comics sold as digital copies, or motion comics where they have been adapted into semi-animated comics with a voiceover. Obviously that has a place in the industry but we didn’t want to do that.
The Thrill Electric is essentially a 150-page graphic novel written specifically for the digital online format, which I’m not sure anyone else has done before. We wanted to do all the things you definitely can’t do in print, but that you see all the time in online content, soundtracks, music, movement etc. It has been a challenge to make all of that work and make it fit with the story, but I am really pleased with the result. I think it’s a really fun story and hopefully the format will be something new for people. A new way to enjoy comics.
MB: What is Emma Vieceli’s role in The Thrill Electric and how did she come on board?
Leah: We’ve known Emma for ages and loved her work, so when we were asked who we might like to draw The Thrill Electric, she was one of our very first suggestions. Unluckily for us, she was much too busy to draw and colour 150 pages of comic all of a sudden. Luckily for comic fans, this was because she was already drawing the Vampire Academy graphic novel adaptations, which, I believe, recently made the New York Times best-sellers list! Despite being so incredibly busy, Emma kindly offered to design the characters and the whole feel of the story, and then put us in touch with Windflower Studio who would go on to draw the comic in Emma’s beautiful style. The whole thing couldn’t have worked better really. Our only worry is that Emma will be in such demand now we’ll not get a look in! We’ll have to snag her on something else soon!
MB: Please tell us about Windflower Studio and their involvement.
John: All-female UK-based comic book collective, Windflower Studio has turned out to be a perfect fit for the project. They’re all incredibly talented and have properly slogged their guts out on the series. To get The Thrill Electric ‘look’, the foreground, midground and background of each panel had to be drawn separately, so you can imagine how much work went into every single page. I just hope we haven’t put them off doing more comics work, not least because I’d love to see more from them in the future.
MB: Even though it’s set in the Victorian era, the Thrill Electric is actually quite contemporaneous in terms of its subject and themes. Would you agree with that statement and to what extent, and in what way? (Cor, that one’s a bit like an essay question. Soz.)
Leah: Whoo. Okay. Loving your use of the word contemporaneous by the way! Yes, it’s dealing with young people going into the workplace for the first time and how daunting that can be. It’s about what an online network like the Internet, or the Telegraph actually means for people in their everyday lives. Gossip spreading faster than people could imagine, online bullying, sexting, spam and scam artists, online gaming and Skype-type intercontinental communications.
It’s about being in a world where you can hear the voices of so many other people and more importantly, they can all hear you too. It’s about a group of young people suddenly finding themselves at the very cutting edge of technology, and almost becoming a species of their own, with their own language, their own slang, their online buddies, their Siemens telegraph key. I’d say in a way it’s one of the most modern things we’ve ever written, even though it’s set in the 1870’s.
MB: Finally, what haven’t I asked about the Thrill Electric (or the creators involved) that I should have?
John: The fact that it’s set in Manchester is a pretty big deal and quite important. When we were still at the pitching stage we were thinking of setting it in London, which would have made things very different. Manchester was the first truly industrialised city on the planet and was viewed by the rest of the world as a kind of metropolis of the future. The cotton industry was incredibly important, of course, but there was just so much industry – so many inventions and innovations that were changing the world all coming out of this place that had been little more than a small market town mere decades before. Victorian Manchester is about as steampunk as it gets.
MB: Leah and John, thanks for your time.
Leah Moore and John Reppion are the critically acclaimed writing team behind such works as The Trial of Sherlock Holmes, Albion, Raise the Dead and Wild Girl. Their website can be found here, while the Thrill Electric is online here.
Windflower Studio is a UK-based, all-female comic book studio. For more on Windflower Studio, check their website.
Emma Vieceli is the acclaimed writer/artist behind many works including Marvel Girl Comics and Dragon Heir: Reborn. For details of Vieceli and her work, have a look at Em’s site.
Matt Badham has written articles for the Big Issue in the North, Comic Heroes and the Judge Dredd Megazine. He’s also had three of his comic scripts realised, in 2000 AD, Commando Picture Library and Zarjaz. He can be contacted via mattbadham (at) hotmail (dot) com. He doesn’t have a blog or website because… well, he’s doesn’t do enough interesting stuff to justify having a blog or website. (Last night he painted the bathroom door. Tonight he’s going to give it another coat… or two.)