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VV Brown & David Allain:

The City Of Abacus

Singer, songwriter and producer, VV Brown and her collaborator, film director and illustrator David Allain, are launching their new comic book series, The City of Abacus, with an exhibition at The Book Club in Shoreditch, London between 6 and 29 May 2010. The City of Abacus is a dark futuristic tale of corruption, rebellion and adventure, set in the eerie city of Abacus, presided over by evil ruler Queen Virusos, where music is banned, creative objects have become mysterious relics and the city’s people have their thoughts controlled by the MX-41. Only the orphaned heroine Freeda is unsettled by this conformity. The City of Abacus will be released in a series of instalments throughout 2010, the first drawn by Emma Price, the second by Lee O’Connor, with the complete graphic novel being published at the end of the year. In addition, VV Brown is releasing an original composition of music digitally with each volume. I interviewed her by email, with some extra replies from David Allain, to find out more about this innovative comics-music crossover.


Paul Gravett:
How did this collaborative project come about and how is it working?

VV Brown:
It was a very spontaneous affair which is how most of my ideas and opportunities come about generally. I was starting to get the itch of being creative again as I had finished my album and was on the treadmill of promotion with it which can get a bit diminishing at times. In a “eureka” moment like Archimedes I just decided I wanted to make a comic book. I had read comic books growing up as a child and was very familiar with the contrast within the many different approaches to storylines and on an afternoon off I remember just putting paper to pad and starting a script. It was indefinite, free and imaginative and I could finally talk about political concepts without worrying about confusing toppling the pop castle. As a collaboration it works like a well-oiled rocket. It’s very fun and creative and has no parameters conceptually.

How did you both connect, and how did you bring in artist Emma Price?

I called a friend of mine, David Allain, who is a film-maker and illustrator, after the script was written and he was very excited to get on board. We naturally work very well together and sometimes I feel like our brains are connected by the synapses. It’s a very easy collaborative project. From this, our ideas sparked off one another and we introduced Emma Price to polish up the artwork and take it to a refined level.

Have you mapped out the whole story arc of The City of Abacus? How many episodes will it run to in total?

The story is briefly mapped out but I tend to use journeys on aeroplanes as time and place for me to experiment and extend and edit.  It’s a very free journey and you soon become connected to the characters like friends wanting to defend their personalities and representing them psychologically in a way their voice can be heard. Due to this relationship and connection the story changes and moves in different directions like smoke. There are 7 episodes of the comic that we will release each month between May and November. In the month of December we will merge all the books and release a graphic novel.

VV Brown at the Book Club exhibition opening night.

It seems that comics are nearly as important in your life as music. How have comics influenced you growing up and now as an adult?

They are quite important. For me, being creative all goes under the umbrella of me being an individual and embracing that through being free and creative. Music, art, table tennis are all the same thing, each one just has a different path from the same route. I was a very intense child and always questioned things. I remember when I finished my interview at Oxford and walked out of the room as I placed my ear to the door I remember hearing, “a bit deep isn’t she”. I thought that would jeopardise my chance. I loved to search for knowledge, the quest of questions and truth and as a child this natural frustration grew. Comics provided a world where I could be challenged by these political apprehensions in a way that would keep my attention.

Which ones had the most impact on you and why? Are you interested in manga too?

I love Manga very much. It’s a culture in itself. I really love A Jew in Communist Prague by Vittorio Giardino, Tintin in Tibet by Hergé, It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken by Seth, Kingdom Come by Mark Waid. There are so many. Strangers in Paradise: I Dream Of You by Terry Moore and The League of Extraordinary Men by Alan Moore, who is from my home town Northampton, and Kevin O’Neill.

You are portraying the struggles of the creative individual within an oppressive 1984-style Big Brother future. What sort of commentary about society and the world today do you want to get across in The City of Abacus? What is your motivation and underlying message?

It hurts me how we are totally becoming attenuated. Slowly knowledge is being lost, rewritten and the truth is not the truth anymore but more a mere perception of what we think the truth is. “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it” (George Orwell)  Technology and mass media are all forms of control that slowly hypnotise us into losing what we knew we once were. “Individuals”, highly creative with brains the size of planets, metaphorically. The comic is a tale which challenges those ideals and is a story about breaking out of the zombie state. Evolving into the true human beings we were always meant to be and fighting against the system of “virus” culture.

Artwork from City Of Abacus Vol 1 by Emma Price

Can you compare writing lyrics to songs with writing dialogue and captions for comics? How are they similar, how are they different?

They are very metaphoric. I love writing stories and creating images. Like the Crying Blood lyric: “You got me feeling like a cloud in a stormy weather” and so forth. The comic displays those kind of images, lyrically. However, there is much more freedom in writing for the comic. I am enjoying being able to be as abstract as I want, which can’t happen in pop music sometimes.

How will the original compositions relate to each new episode of the comic? Are they like a movie soundtrack? Will you compile them into a sort of “concept album”?

Before I could sing, I wanted to make instrumentals and compose. I told my music teacher that I wanted to be a composer like Beethoven and they would laugh. I know I’ll never be a genious like him but I have always had the itch to make music that was experimental and less structural, less predictable like pop music can be. This was my chance to use more of my classical training and making music that would really express the illustration correctly was what I wanted. Each time you read the comic you can hear my music in the background. I could play with strings and dissonance and instruments from world music and different language. All these ideas you will see as the comic develops. This will definitely be completed as a concpet album very much like a movie soundtrack. How exciting!

In places there’s almost a Christian tone, for example where Freeda says, “Father, why did you leave me alone like this?” Is she a saviour/messiah figure, someone unique and special like a Harry Potter, or is she an example that anyone can choose to stand up to oppression?

Wow. That was never intentional although I can see why this may seem so. Maybe I did that subconciously. I think we wanted to portray her as being completly vulnerable and alone. A complete victim to the “virus” culture because she is alone and relies on it to validate herself and massage her insecurities and deep wonder of self-knowing, due to the fact that she doesn’t have anyone in her life.

What are your views on comics online or on the iPhone, compared to comics printed on paper?

I will always gravitate to print. There is nothing better than the smell of a new comic or a book store. However, we have to make our money back and I have spent a lot of my personal money, so for us it’s a business move.

How did the exhibition and opening night at the Book Club go? Can you describe what visitors will see in the show?

It was fantastic, life size versions, installation art, good music, artwork on the walls, 1,000 people coming through in dribs and drabs. It was brilliant. We hope to revive our exhibition when we release the graphic novel and my eyes are on the Tate Modern. Dream and think big and all will manifest. Quantum physics. My second pastime to comics.

Art from the City Of Abacus exhibition.


Paul Gravett:
How did this collaborative project come about and how is it working? How did you both connect, and how did you bring in artist Emma Price?

David Allain
V and I initially collaborated when I directed the music video for her debut single ‘Crying Blood’. A few months later V called me up one night and told me about an exciting idea she had and asked if I’d like to get involved. A while later, once I had made initial character sketches and started to get a feel for the City I spoke to some friends about young illustrators who might be able to help further bring my ideas to life. A friend suggested Emma Price, who they’d met at Central St. Martins. Emma totally got what we were aiming for and has been a great help in setting up the world in Vol. 1. It’s about 3 years since I first met Lee O’Connor, who illustrated Vol. 2. Last year our artwork appeared in the anthology Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption alongside some of Lee’s. At that book launch we discussed The City of Abacus and a few months later the opportunity arose for us to work on it together.

Artwork from City Of Abacus Vol 2 by Lee O’Connor.

What are your views on comics online or on the iPhone, compared to comics printed on paper?

I think it is an exciting time with so many new apps that allow you to do so much on-the-go. It only makes sense that you should be able to read your favourite comics while you’re out and about. Nevertheless, nothing compares to going to a good comic book shop, flicking through the new releases and leaving with this month’s additions all nicely packed in those plastic sleeves. It’s a bit like how buying music has changed. Downloading is great on the one hand because it gives greater access to your art, but nothing compares to the experience of actually going and buying something you’ve been waiting all month for. And physically having something you’re excited about, something you can hold, is by far a richer experience.

How did the exhibition and opening night at the Book Club go? Can you describe what visitors will see in the show?

The opening at the Book Club was amazing! Exclusively for that night we had an installation downstairs where guests were able to walk through a few scenes from our comic book world. We worked with Art Directors Dan Smith and Millie Ross from Jotta, and they did an amazing job at creating a life-sized re-imagining of parts of The City of Abacus. And on the ground floor of the Book Club we hung a selection of artwork from the first 2 volumes. This includes pieces by Emma Price and Lee O’Connor, but also gives viewers a greater sense for the comic’s development with my detailed storyboards and V’s initial script notes also on display. It was a great night, and the exhibition artwork will be up at the Book Club until 29th May.

Posted: May 16, 2010


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The City Of Abacus
VV Brown
David Allain
Emma Price
Lee O’Connor

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British Comics
David Allain
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The City Of Abacus Vol 1
by VV Brown, David Allain
& Emma Price