Comics legend Bryan Talbot talks about illustrating Somali poem ‘Catastrophe’

Bryan Talbot, one of the most influential and experimental British comic book artists and writers to date, has been producing work since 1969. Best known for The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and the Grandville series, Natasha Sutton Williams went to find out more about the man behind the pencil.

Natasha Sutton Williams: Your career covers the whole spectrum: from little known underground comics to widely read projects like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Do you have any personal favourites?

Bryan Talbot: The books I write and draw myself are my favourites. It's satisfying to be in control of all aspects of a creative project. I'm still very fond of The Tale of One Bad Rat, not only because it was my first non-genre graphic novel and I think the storytelling's very good, but also because of the response I've had from readers. It's well over twenty years since it was first published, but I still get letters and emails from people who were and are deeply affected by it. It's still in print, in several countries, and is still used in some child abuse survivor centres as reading therapy.

You work in a range of different art styles. How do you determine the best visual approach for a project?

It's mostly intuitive. I try to illustrate a story in the style I feel is most appropriate, as the actual drawing style - as well as the style of page and panel composition - is a major part of the storytelling in comics. The highly-polished, dramatic adventure style I used for the Grandville books would give totally the wrong atmosphere to a book such as The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, a biography of the anarchist revolutionary Louise Michel, which needed a gritty, sombre and subtler style.

You recently provided an illustration for Catastrophe, a translated poem about mass migration by Weedhsame, a leading Somali poet. What attracted you to this project?

BT: I enjoy making artwork for different sorts of projects, but I rarely get asked to draw for something other than comics, though I've recently designed and done the illustrations for a 230-metre long strip of granite pavement, and may be illustrating a stage set next year. The illustration for the translated poem seemed to be a worthwhile publication, bringing the experiences and feelings of refugees to, I hope, the general public. I drew and painted the front cover, along with a couple other pictures that the Poetry Translation Centre are using on their IndieGoGo page as incentives to contributors.

The Grandville series features anthropomorphic animals living in the Socialist Republic of Britain. The world and its alternative history are richly detailed. What was your research process?

On the steampunk side, I visited quite a few museums of technology, such as the ones in Manchester and Birmingham, that have many examples of steam-powered machines: the Verkehrszentrum (Transport Museum) in Munich, the Railway Museum in York and the Victorian water-pumping station in Sunderland. Plus I've accumulated a small collection of second-hand books with old photos or illustrations of Belle Epoch Paris.

As for animal references, I've been to the natural history museums in Dublin, Milan and Helsinki, and Kendal Museum, all of which have large collections of stuffed animals, and I have a box full of realistic toy animal figurines that I can pose.

Force Majeure, the fifth volume of the Grandville series, is coming out this November. Can you reveal anything about the story?

It's the final story, and certainly the longest. Although I structured the individual books as stand-alone stories, there has been a story arc slowly building in the background, and it all comes to fruition in this volume. It's also the darkest, with many plot twists, and is a huge homage to the detective-thriller genre. Basically, Detective Inspector LeBrock is alone, wanted for murder, and on the run from both the police and the vicious gangster overlord Tiberius Koenig, who is hell-bent on the destruction of LeBrock and anyone he holds dear.

You have worked closely with your wife Mary Talbot on critically acclaimed projects like the Costa Award-winning Dotter of Her Fathers Eyes. What is your collaborative process like?

We've been together for over forty years and it's just like a continuation of everyday life. In the comic industry, a writer/artist collaboration usually means that someone writes the story, which then gets sent to an artist, who draws it. As you can imagine, by living in the same house, our collaborations have been extremely close, with both of us having input into all aspects of the process. We'll discuss the stories over the months that Mary writes them, I'll act as script editor, suggesting changes when I think fit, and Mary has a good look at the artwork several times a day while it's being drawn, giving feedback and suggesting improvements.

Sometimes you work as an artist in collaboration with a writer. Sometimes you work as both artist and writer. Do you find yourself easy to work with?

No! As a writer, I'm very demanding with myself as an artist, a total bastard in fact. I'm always scripting hard-to-draw, very detailed images, such as crowd scenes - which I hate drawing. Still, I know exactly what the writer is picturing in his mind, so there are never any misunderstandings!

You can pre-order the Somali Poem Catastrophe illustrated by Bryan Talbot by going to the Poetry Translation Centre IndieGoGo page.

Force Majeure, the fifth volume of the Grandville series, will be published in November, with a special one-off pre-publication launch at the Lakes Festival, and an exhibition of artwork at Orbital Comics, London, this November.