Strange Weather Lately: An Interview with metaphrog by Maxwelltown High pupils and Louise Walker, English Teacher
Metaphrog is the pseudonym of writer John Chalmers and artist Sandra Marrs. Together they are the authors of a series of graphic novels that could be likened to a strange hybrid of Kafka and Tin-Tin- “deceptively simple tales that manage to pierce directly to the heart of the human condition” as Gavin Lees from The Comics Journal puts it.
Coming from different backgrounds- Sandra moved from France to Scotland while John is a native Scot with a background in science and engineering- they met and decided to work together, eventually creating strange, surreal and often moving graphic novels. Their most well-known creation is Louis- protagonist of the graphic novels Red Letter Day, Lying to Clive, The Clown’s Last Words, Dreams Never Die, and Night Salad. Louis is a simple and unassuming character who lives in a Hamlet with his pet bird F.C. (short for Formulaic Companion). He spends his time seemingly writing letters to his aunt, completing menial jobs and daydreaming.
Recently I had a chance to interview these two creative figures about comics, education, personal experience and the therapeutic benefits of art and literature.
Q. Can you tell us a little about yourselves?
Sandra: Well I come from France originally and I moved to Scotland when I was 20. I didn’t really intend to stay here but I met John and we very quickly decided that we wanted to work together to mix our interests. I was painting and drawing and John wanted to write. So here we are, 18 years later.
John: We realised that we got on well and wanted to work together. But that really took the form at first of just playing, just experimenting with the comic medium. I was still working at the time- I was working in research science and had been doing that- but more and more I found myself looking out the window, wishing I was doing something else that aligned more with my humanist beliefs or way of thinking. A lot of the funding for science and engineering was research for the military and I didn’t really like that.
Q. John, when did you first start writing? When did metaphrog finish their first graphic novel?
J: I always liked reading and writing, it’s just something I’ve always done, but once we had a handful of short stories that we were happy with, Sandra and I made a comic called “Strange Weather Lately” which we brought out in 1996.
Q. Where do you get your ideas?
J: From everything we’ve ever read. If you are lucky to be a reader you cultivate what I think is an inner world, you can then draw on that.
S. I draw every day; you get ideas every day from things you experience- whether you are on the bus and see something that suddenly piques your interest.
J: If an idea is forceful enough it will stay in your mind and impress upon you.
Q. Continuing on from the point you made about being a reader, that when you read you can open yourself up to an inner world; are there any authors that have influenced your work?
J: There are so many great authors; [reading their work is] like living different lives. The way they experimented with the medium, with using words, can be inspirational. I like different writers from Kafka to Flann O’Brien- anyone who is slightly anarchic or has provoked thought. I also enjoy reading things that are humorous. But I think that if you are writing you are conscious that you want to write something new- you don’t want to be seen as a pale imitation of James Joyce, or Orwell or Kafka – even though there may be levels of that and you can make allusions to that in the stories. But you don’t want to sound old or tired.
Q. How about you Sandra, any illustrators or artists that influenced you?
S: Too many to mention. When I was a young teenager I was really into painters like Van Gogh or Gauguin and things like that but then I rediscovered comic books in my late teens. I enjoyed a lot of French artists like Enki Bilal, whose work is very painterly and pretty interesting. Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin too- even though they was made so long ago they’re still so modern.
J: Except for the racist ones!
Q. Is anything in your graphic novels based on real life experiences?
S: The postman was based on our postman!
J: Also, you can’t help but write about your own life, the more tricks you try to use to cover it up the more it becomes obvious that you are writing about your own life. In Louis: Night Salad, it was a very personal story; it was a way of dealing with my father dying. So it’s quite a sad story, but it’s not about death, it’s a book about books and how they can transport or even transform a reader.
The Clown’s Last Words is more to do with the role that artists have in society. What they are doing, how they can comment on society from a distance.
Lying to Clive was more about language. How using certain words, you can make people feel rotten about themselves- a lot of our systems are constructed like this, where language limits people- but it shouldn’t. If you can’t laugh with people, then you can’t share things with people. So again, that would be less personal, more general. But yeah, you are talking about your own life [when you write].
S: You are making stories from your own point of view even though you try to remove yourself from it; you don’t want it to be too obviously about you. But you can’t help but bring your own impressions to it
J: Or include people you like or people you love.
Q. Is Louis depressed?
S: Louis has not much choice about what is happening in his life and he is not always aware of what is happening around him but he is quite a resilient sort of character, always going forward, not dwelling too much.
J: To say that Louis is depressed is dangerous, depression is stigmatised- it’s not like a virus or a flu that you can get rid of. Some people never recover from depression. I think that [the novels] are definitely designed to deal with some of these abstract ideas. Whether Louis is depressed or not, I don’t know. He certainly isn’t able to say no to the authority for one reason or another and in a sense that’s quite like Kafka. But with each story there is a progression and there is a slight glimmer of hope each time.
To treat these subjects is really important, literature shouldn’t be about sitting in the drawing room having conversations, literature has changed- it can be about working class people having a hard time, it can be about people who are on the edge. There’s been experimentation in literature for hundreds of years.
So there is no reason why graphic novels can’t share that degree of experimentation, not just in the formal content but also in the way the story is told and how the pictures can suggest things like sadness.
Q. Do you write for children or adults?
J: I write for nobody, I just imagine a reader that likes fart jokes (laughs).
Q. The images are quite simplistic and colourful, which I imagine would appeal to children.
S: That was the idea when making the Louis graphic novels. It takes a lot of work to make the images look simple in actual fact, and it sometimes takes years to refine a style. So actually it’s taken a while to get to that!
Q. Do you think that there is snobbery directed at comic books in this country?
S: There used to be a lot more snobbery. I think in recent years there’s been a lot more interest in graphic novels, which is great, and a lot more people are open to them.
J: I think people are aware of cultural resistance- “comics are for kids, comics are trash”. But we like The Cramps- that’s junk, that is seen as trash- but it’s got a swagger to it, it does it so well.
I think that there is some residual snobbery but it is improving and that’s a good thing because comic books are innately anarchic, comic books put the finger up to authority and they are quite appealing to kids for that reason and probably children will read them, especially if they are told not to!
Also, if children are reading then they are in a certain enclosed loop in their world with the book and they benefit from that. There are ways of learning that still haven’t been recognised yet.
Q. What is the single greatest challenge when you are creating your own comic books?
S: The biggest challenge is to know whether you are writing a good story and telling it as well as you could.
J: It is enjoyable but it is also a challenge. It’s a lot of investment of your time and your life, but there’s a challenge in everybody’s life. It’s quite difficult being alive, people don’t tell you that. (laughs)
Q. What is the greatest thing that you learned in school?
J: Don’t put your fingers in the plug socket? (Laughs) That’s facetious isn’t it?
S: It is a bit of a cliché that they are the best years of your life.
J: I quite liked Maths… I still like Maths. I studied Science and Engineering for years and I learned that if you want to get into something, better to get into it deeply. The more you get into something the more you get out from it. I think that’s what I learned in school. And sense of humour, I learned the importance of that- in school you had to be funny or be able to fight. It was quite a rough school- a lot of gangs, poverty, and a lot of social pressures. You learn that money isn’t as important. We were lucky that we had a comprehensive education in Scotland; the teachers weren’t as thinly spread as they are now. I did stay in education for a long time, I do believe in it.
But as Sandra said, it is supposed to be the best years of your life but you are unaware that you are living through that, it sometimes feels quite miserable. With parents, pressures and teachers, it’s quite difficult for kids.
Q. Any advice for aspiring writers and comic book artists?
S: Work hard and try to be the best you can.
J: Be patient. Don’t be limited or worry about your technical limitations, don’t let anything stop you, because you’ll only be encouraged by feedback. There used to be a culture of fanzines, which has been replaced by blogs, so the possibility to get your work out there exists. There are publishers, but there are also people who just produce their own work and if it’s funny it usually it gets across. So don’t be inhibited.
For more information on metaphrog, visit http://www.metaphrog.com/
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