The Black Project
“One of my preoccupations is how to represent childhood realistically. There’s a great collective amnesia towards childhood, adults often regard it as a lost utopia when in fact it’s often brutal and cruel.” In his graphic novel debut The Black Project, out from Myriad Editions this September, Gareth Brookes unflinchingly anatomises one prepubescent boy’s secret obsessive crafting of artificial girlfriends from found objects. Set in a suburban Surrey of headlines like ‘Mammoth Marrow Madness’, Richard’s unself-conscious narration is part memoir, D.I.Y. guide and sex education manual, weaving his joined-up handwriting between embroidered frames and images and linocut vignettes.
Like Richard in this story, Brookes was taught embroidery by his Mum but explains that autobiographical similarities end there. Brookes shows how with each successive model - Laura, Charlotte, Melissa, Jessica - Richard’s queasy imitation of life and grasp of sexuality awkwardly improve. A mostly friendless ‘boff’ at school, Richard is subject to tensions at home from his prying mother and drunken father and the unspoken sadness of his dead brother. Brookes deliberately avoids specifying Richard’s age. “Anything to do with sexuality and childhood is a massive taboo, whereas teenage sexuality is a matter for innuendo and mirth; one year either way could change the character of Richard’s behaviour from slightly odd to downright abhorrent.”
Four years in the making, The Black Project feels as obsessive in its stitching, cutting and manuscript as Richard’s female constructs. For its layouts, Brookes looked beyond comics to medieval and early Renaissance church art, stamps, matchboxes, postcards and other designs in which image and text cohabit. Words flow into scrolling, ribbon-like banderoles, heraldic devices and almost architectural features. To these techniques, Brookes adds pressed flowers for his new comic for ArtReview magazine (see sketches, preparatory stages and finished pages at the bottom of this Article). ‘Dead Things’ is about children twisting their mother’s religious explanation of funerals to suit their nasty impulses. “There’s something oddly violent about a flower press, tightening the screws is like some form of torture.”
Brookes exhibits his prints and embroideries at the London Print Studio from September 4th to 7th, and as part of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal from October 18th to 20th. He also talks to me at the Manchester Literary Festival on Monday October 7th and will take part in this year’s Comica Festival and Comiket.
Web Exclusive Interview
Where were when you heard you’d won Myriad’s First Graphic Novel Competition and what was your reaction?
Gareth Brookes [embroidered self-portrait above]:
I was in Brisbane, Australia camping in our friend’s back garden, which was full of chickens and cane toads. I turned my phone on in the morning and all these text messages from my friend Peter Lally started coming through. He was in the pub celebrating on my behalf! There was this very large paddling pool in the garden. I immediately jumped in.
Your techniques of embroidery, piercing the skin of the fabric, and linocut, incising and scarifying the surface, are atypical for making comics. What appeals to you about these very physical, powerful media?
I find using craft media very satisfying, you’re taking materials and bending them to your will using a process of violence. I think things that are made using a certain level of physicality have an aura about them that really communicates strongly at a time when most things are done on computers. At the same time modern technology means you can now take the results and convert them into different formats like comics. Embroidery brings with it associations to do with domesticity and a sort of outdated middle class ethos, whilst images made using relief print processes like linocut have a lovely storybook flavour to them which is quite dark. [photo below of Gareth leading a linocut workshop at Orbital Comics, London as part of the International Alternative Press Festival in 2011].
What were the challenges of composing and planning the pages and panels? How did you decide what would be embroidered and what would be linocut? And what scale are your originals?
As a rule I decided that I would use the lino to illustrate people and things, and that the embroidery would depict places and do the decorative work. As The Black Project went on, I got more into the possibilities of breaking down these rules and combining the two. All the lino images are around A5 or in some cases A4, whilst the embroideries were done in circular frames measuring somewhere between 20 and 35 cms in diameter. In terms of composing pages and panels my plans were quite rough and vague. In many cases I would make embroideries without having any specific plan for them, wait until they were scanned into the computer, and go through them later looking for a page structure to present itself.
Of course, the Bayeux tapestry was actually an embroidery. It’s also a medium for folk art and in the past an approved skill for women. Have you been inspired by other embroiderers, past of present?
The collection of embroidery ‘samplers’ in the V & A definitely inspired me. These are practice pieces that young girls had to make in order to improve their stitching in the 17th 18th and 19th centuries. They are basically small pieces of material full of stitched lettering, decoration and simple imagery but I find them endlessly fascinating both as artworks and as social documents. One specific embroiderer that has to take some credit for inspiring me is my mum Marion Brookes, who is quite a well-known name in the world of embroidery. She taught me basic embroidery when I was really young, although I was far too lazy to learn anything too complicated and developed my own style more suited to the imagery I wanted to depict such as exploding tanks.
Is there an underground/alternative embroidery scene today? Are you aware of Belgian artist Aurélie William Levaux (above) and Finnish artist Hanneriina Moisseinen (below), who both use embroidery in their comics?
Yes! I went to the Angoulême festival in 2010 and the two books I brought back which had a massive effect were Les yeux du seigneur by Aurélie William Levaux which was on the 5e Couche table and Setit Ja Partituurit which includes Hanneriina Moisseinen published by Huuda Huuda. I was massively impressed with all the stuff 5e Couche and FREMOK had on display. All of a sudden I was seeing these comic artist using woodcut, etching, textiles and painting and I remember thinking ‘I know how to do this stuff! Why the hell have I been using a pen!!’ I’m not sure if there’s an underground embroidery scene today, if not, there needs to be one! I saw an exhibition at the Arts Council a while ago called Boys Who Sew, that had some quite interesting work in it, but I haven’t seen much since then.
Is embroidering a soothing meditative practice or is it very challenging and sometimes frustrating?
It’s soothing until you get into a tangle! It’s a lovely medium though, highly transportable and sociable. You can have a good conversation and keep stitching, in fact I think that by dividing your attention it enriches your ability to think and converse by connecting you a little bit to your subconscious. It’s no accident so many radical movements of the past were formed around craft practices.
Did comics, or narrative illustration/sequential part, play a part during your studies at the Royal College of Art or were they not really approved of there? Did Andrzej Klimowski teach you, as he also makes amazing linocut silent novels of course?
They weren’t disapproved of. In fact, for a while our department had its own comic! It was a pretty strange publication but very refreshing in that the kind of critical discourse that surrounds Fine Art couldn’t follow us into a comic, we could escape from what Susan Sontag calls the ‘revenge of interpretation on the image’. Having said that, I think we all saw it as a bit of fun and it folded after one issue! The only one of us who took it seriously was Steve Tillotson who started Banal Pig comic soon after. I don’t think I was ever taught by Klimowski, he teaches on the visual communications course and although I sat in on a few of their seminars, we all tended to stay in our own departments unfortunately. One very important thing I did at the RCA was taking a creative writing course with the poet Sue Hubbard, which improved my writing tremendously.
You’re recycling some compositions and layouts for incorporating text with pictures which have been largely forgotten or seldom used for comics. Which came first, your script or these structures? How did you make sure your hand-lettered texts would fit and flow within these page systems?
I actually wrote The Black Project as a prose piece in around 2004 having written a few stories in that kind of child/teenage voice in the creative writing class. I just put it away and forgot about it until about 2008 by which point I was making small press comics. By the time I got to working on The Black Project seriously, it was like interpreting someone else’s writing. I broke down the prose into sections and thought about what images were already in the writing, and how much writing I could edit out and how much storytelling I could let the images do. At the same time I was collecting lots of images of stained glass windows and old postage stamps and going through them to find patterns that I could appropriate to help me tell certain bits of the story. I was very bad at planning things out to be honest and I often had to scrap pages and go back to the drawing board.
Your use of speech balloons is very limited, was this a conscious decision to try to avoid them and if so, why?
I wanted The Black Project to teeter between being a comic and not being a comic, and between being narrated by a voice from one person’s perspective and being in that third person, more cinematic space of comics. A speech bubble is a great device for suddenly letting a character speak for themselves, even though it’s within Richards’s narrative, so I tended to save them for special occasions.
How did you decide not to illustrate certain scenes or actions and narrate them as text? What were your ‘rules’ for what to show and what to tell?
I’m not sure I had any rules really, I think I approached each part as I went along. I realised that if I was to achieve any intimacy between the reader and the characters, I would have to use sequential devices more like conventional comics, but beyond that I’m not sure. I think I got better at writing the book as I went on, and I settled more into using these different systems of combining image and text, so then it became a matter of instinct.
Richard’s resourcefulness and imagination made me think of the BBC kids’ programme Blue Peter of course, encouraging kids to make things from found objects and empty packaging. I was such a fan of Thunderbirds that school friends and I made up our own versions called Torpedoes out of cardboard. Instead of only five Thunderbirds, we came up with twelve Torpedoes! Did you make anything like this growing up?
Absolutely! I was very much the same, if you’re parents couldn’t afford to buy you something you tried to make it yourself! That whole Blue Peter sticky-back-plastic thing was very much in my mind when writing The Black Project. I haven’t watched Blue Peter for a few years now, but I hope they still do things like that. I think that’s it’s very important for children, and teenagers for that matter, to make things rather than just passively consume.
This story is set in the past, pre-internet, pre-mobile phones. How much is it a sort of time capsule of suppressive English suburban life gone by, or have things not changed very much even now?
I think suburban life is much the same, hopefully it’s a bit more liberal and young people are listened to a bit more. I’m not sure. The Internet and mobile phones have certainly changed things, but I suspect it’s just changed the medium through which kids broadcast and receive disinformation, get hold of images and ideas that lower their self-esteem and bully each other. In essence things haven’t changed.
How did you tap into those complex feelings during puberty and adolescence? How much of The Black Project draws on your own teenage years?
The book is very close to my own experience in terms of the environment and the tone. I guess I was a bit of a misfit in school but I wasn’t as reclusive or as obsessive as Richard. I think the process of writing dredges up feelings and memories in a way that can sometimes be miraculous, but it draws them out in an emulsion that also contains fiction. In the end I think it’s impossible to write fact or fiction, the one will always contain a proportion of the other.
What makes your book so discomforting yet tender is Richard’s struggle to understand sexuality, how the female body works and his own confused feelings as he goes through puberty. Can your book also be seen as a satirical criticism of the lack of sex education for teenagers, either at school or at home?
Yes, I think there’s that aspect to it. The sex education I received was pretty laughable. Some of the conversations surrounding what to teach kids and when is ludicrous. Children can sense the discomfort of adults when they talk sex, and they loose authority when kids perceive this weakness. I think it’s even harder for parents and teachers now.
I’ve been haunted by The Black Project and finding that it’s quite a saddening tale, because Richard’s individuality, his eccentricity, however unsettling, is something precious that is probably going to be lost in his fitting in with expectations, buying the right cool trainers and bike. There’s a subtle critique of conformity throughout this book.
Absolutely, I’m really glad that came through. What Richard is doing is pretty strange and our instinct is to think it’s wrong, but it’s very difficult to say exactly what’s wrong with it. I wanted the reader to feel for Richard, and hope that he would get over his obsession and fit in, but then have to question what that would mean. Fitting in as a young man not only means being like others through the products you consume, but also having to be seen to regard women as objects in a less literal way than Richard does already, but in a more insipid and somehow more objectifying way.
Dare I ask what’s next? Are you exploring other media for comics now?
Ah! Well, that would be telling! I’m pretty busy with getting prints ready for the London Print Studio show, as well a show that will feature as part of the Lakes Comic Art festival in October. I have a few ideas I want to get off the ground, I’ve been experimenting a bit with monoprint, pressed flowers and trying to get round to learning how to use a sewing machine. I have one idea for a Sci-Fi comic, but we’ll have to wait and see!
Thanks Gareth, and here’s a video of our conversation at the opening of your London Print Studio exhibition:
Web Exclusive: Initial Sketch and Preparatory Stages for Gareth Brookes’ ‘Dead Things’ strip for ArtReview Magazine:
This Article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of ArtReview Magazine.