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John Harris Dunning & Nikhil Singh:

Salem Brownstone

This new century demands a new charismatic comic-book magician to weave his spells on us and by updating classic conjurers like Mandrake and Doctor Strange with a twist of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh have crafted a haunting, hypnotising master of the mystic arts in Salem Brownstone. Their sharp, surprising storytelling and intense, imaginative illustration combine to create real magic on the page.

On Saturday 24 October, at the ICA, their graphic novel from Walker Books is launched in style at a Salem Brownstone Spooktacular, a special Comica Halloween-themed evening event, with a visual presentation and panel with John, Becky Barnicoat and Toby Litt, hosted by me, plus free movies in Cinema 2 and signings and creepy music in the ICA Bar. More details here. So to prepare you for next Saturday’s excesses, here’s my Dazed & Confused profile of Singh from 2004 followed by a brand-new e-interview with Dunning and Singh.

Maverick Capetonian dreamer and draughtsman Nikhil Singh hopes to one day find the halo he lost. In the meantime, he refines the ravishing precisions and long-fingered delicacy of his uncanny, almost 19th century illustrations. Inspired by Antonioni’s film-editing, Brassaï‘s sense of light, by Klimt and Japanese prints, Singh applies himself to all manner of pet projects. Emerging organically through music, writing and comics, The Constructus Corporation present The Ziggurat is an exceptional mixed-media hip hop concept housed within an 88-page hardcover book with CD from African Dope Records. A variety of characters inhabiting an hypnotic futureworld are brought to life via Singh’s graphic narratives, echoed in the handwritten journal and the soundtrack performances by lyrical terrorist Waddy Jones of Max Normal and Fantastikill.

Singh’s unique talents are in demand elsewhere. For a New Year’s party in Capetown, Berlin DJ Miss Kitten invited him to draw live using people’s skin for his canvas, the process being projected and enlarged onto the club walls. The unsettling realms of the recently orphaned mystic Salem Brownstone, created by writer John Dunning and serialising in Sylvia Farago’s anthology Sturgeon White Moss, perfectly suit the perverse elegance of Singh’s pen and ink. In the late ‘90s, Singh had already written an unpublished graphic novel of his own influenced by William Burroughs’ cut-up techniques. In Nagasaki Nikita he plans to expand on this tale of a drowned planet and its population’s “perfect” society who are trapped on an orbiting space station. His new constraint will be to eliminate all worlds and tell everything through picture. Singh’s imagery will be more than rich and meaningful enough for the task.

Paul Gravett:
Can you each give me a bit of background about yourselves, both personal and creative, and how you’ve arrived at crafting this extraordinary graphic novel together?

John Harris Dunning:
Well, I’ve always been comic obsessed - to the point I was dreaming in comic book frames by about ten years old. I studied film and screenplay writing at university, but didn’t really enjoy directing films - I didn’t like the number of people involved. I enjoy the focus of working on your own, or with a single collaborator. It allows for a purer vision, at least in my case. I got to London from South Africa about ten years ago, and the world of comics in the UK was rock bottom - weekly comics were virtually nonexistent, and all the old anthologies had dried up. It was like a ghost town. All that has changed recently, and it is a particularly exciting development that UK book publishers are starting to commission long-form comic books. I was particularly impressed that Walker Books had the courage to take on two complete unknowns… I met Nik through a mutual friend who was a guiding light throughout the project in terms of encouragement.

Nikhil Singh:
I was hip-deep in the electro-clash scene unfurling in Cape Town 2003 when Salem first reared his pomaded head. I had just finished a 70-page collection of ‘terminal psychedelia’ drawings entitled Host and was just forming my band The Wild Eyes. Host was an emotionally violent collection (limbless women being milked for food on orbital platforms, their babies pulped for canned produce etc) so I wanted to work on something a little more frothy and ‘christmassy’ in its wake. Just to regain a modicum of sanity you know. I met John through our mutual fiend (that’s not a typo no) Psimon Davis, who suggested, in his rather machiavellian way that we collaborate on a comic book together. John and I share a sense of aesthetics and quickly settled on a concept based on some of our ‘these are a few of my favourite things’: Circus tableaus, seductive contortionists, demonic others and retro hardware.

How did the concept of Salem Brownstone first develop - what were the sparks of inspiration?

JHD: I came up with the idea of Salem as a back story for another comic I was writing - it was in a much more realistic style, and Salem was going to be a much more stylized one-pager that the characters in the comic were reading. The other comic project dropped away, but work had started on Salem, and we kept going. I was very into the idea of the English gentleman, like Sherlock Holmes. Another influence was Fifties and Sixties versions of DC’s The Phantom Stranger. I liked these investigators into the unknown and uncanny.

NS: For my own part I had grown up reading English comics. I held subscriptions to Eagle, Battle Action Force, 2000AD, Starblazer, Wildcat, The Megazine, Deadline and the short lived Revolver and Crisis all through late 80’s to the mid 90’s. One thing which seemed to stand out for me was the power of nostalgia in English comics. Almost every story seemed to contain a homage of some sort - even the post-modern reversal of this was evident in writers like Peter Milligan, John Smith, Pat Mills and Grant Morrison. One of my favorite stories was in fact Revere The Witch Boy by John Smith and artist Simon Harrison. John Smith was at the time my favorite writer, having won me over completely with Tyranny Rex, Fervent And Lobe and the subsequent Indigo Prime story cycles. I also loved Simon Harrison’s flagrant disregard for comic illustrative technique. His supernatural abstractions coupled with Smith’s unrivaled edginess came close to achieving a piece which I felt was relatively free of ‘comic nostalgia’. Another artist whose work spoke to me at the time was John Hicklenton, whose spidery, utterly chaotic pen and ink evocations breathed a new aura of twisted violence into the Heavy Metal Dredd series. I remember that so many readers complained about the fetish-laden perversity of his art that the editors (well Tharg) were forced to make a statement defending his honour. Salem Brownstone is my little occult cover-version nostalgia trip into the various teen loves of those various subscriptions, and personalized references can be found throughout - even down to Salem’s Frank Hampson-esque eyebrow….Nostalgia is a fine English tradition in comics and this is my little contribution to the cauldron.

How did the collaboration evolve between writer and artist?

JHD: It’s been interesting - because it has happened over such a long period, both of us have had to be able to grow within in the work, and be allowed free reign. After all, it was all completed for the love of it, with no certainty of publication. Nik did a lot of work in South Africa with us emailing to and fro.

Where did Salem Brownstone first appear and what response did you get to it?

JHD: It appeared in Sturgeon White Moss, and it drew a group of other comic artists and writers around me. It felt good to not just be a fan-boy anymore and have something to show for my passion. That quickly wore off though, and I felt it was important for us to complete a larger work.

NS: It was in Sturgeon White Moss. And I have no idea what the reaction was because I was in Africa!

John, your choices of words and turns of phrase pack some gothic punch, with lines like “a thousand stinging whipchord saviours” for example. What’s your view on the verbal elements of comics, the show or tell question, how they should interplay with the visual?

JHD: Well, I thought it was very important to set a kind of literary tone with the narration and dialogue. In other words, I didn’t want to dumb it down at all. Comic book writing can be a kind of simplification - and that’s just a tradition, not a necessity. With this work I wanted to put that aside. Remember, Salem wasn’t written for kids. Even when I knew the book was going to be pitched to teens as well as adults, with the lion’s share of the work completed, I stood firm on the language - and received the full support of my editor Lizzie Spratt at Walker Books. I remember as a young kid the thrill of finding new words that I didn’t necessarily understand, and learning them. The history of children’s literature is full of language that challenges its readers - that’s what young readers want. That’s why I think this book will both satisfy adults as well as appeal to kids even younger than teens. Also, the very format of comics - brief captions and snatches of dialogue - is uniquely fertile soil for a kind of poetic approach to language, so that was fun to play with.

Nikhil, I also appreciate the intensity of your panels, and the decision to keep several of them wordless, to let your pictures do the talking. How do you think comics work best interweaving text and image? What appeals to you about this challenging medium?

NS: For myself I wanted to develop a particular visual style for Salem. I opted for a heavily hatched and richly shaded approach because I thought it was important to create a visual style which had a foundation in classic pen and ink Children’s book illustration (Arthur Rackham for example). However, in terms of weaving text and image I turn to cinema for inspiration. Filmic sequences are by their nature very structured and one can immediately discern a pace and create a shot list. I’m not a fan of classic comic strip pacing and favour cinematic treatment, hence the aspect ratio of many of the frames and the use of noir lighting to psychedelic effect. I wrote breakdowns of the script as though it were a movie and drew it accordingly. I felt that this cinematic approach would marry nicely with the classic Children’s illustrative flavour and create a unique hybrid.

You worked with editor Lizzie Spratt at Walker Books - what has she brought to the project?

JHD: Lizzie was great - we had been so deep in this project, literally for years, and you kind of lose perspective. It was great having a completely fresh eye come in and give the project a once over. Lizzie had been tracking Salem for a long time, and she really connected with the material - that was the key. She really allowed the book to breathe, slowing down the pace in some sections and speeding it up in others. It was my first experience with working with an editor, and it was a revelation. I think another cogent point is that Lizzie, although immersed in comics, was looking at this from a different perspective - we didn’t want to be constrained by traditional ideas of what a comic book is - Lizzie just wanted to achieve a good book - that’s what we wanted too. And to play with what a comic book could be.

NS: Oh Lizzie’s an absolute star. She immediately identified the essence of what we had set out to achieve - creatively as well as commercially and was able to provide critical perspective; something which the project had severely lacked until that point. Her contributions led to the creation of many extra pages and narrative directions which neither of us would have taken otherwise. She also was able to frame the whole in a clarity which I feel, in hindsight, the book was lacking. Lizzie was able to make Salem accessible without sacrificing or damaging any part of it. Her influence has only enriched it.

Salem has taken seven years to reach fruition - how much of a challenge has this been? Or has this long gestation period actually improved it?

JHD: Well it took a long time - but it was very sporadic work. At first there were long breaks because it was only coming out every six months - then not at all as Sturgeon White Moss finished. Then we stopped and started for a few years before finally deciding to push through to finishing it. I think the extended time period makes for a very rich variety of styles in the pictures - and they hang together very well.

NS: Well it wasn’t seven years of straight work. At first it was four pages of script and then six months of waiting, then another four pages etc - this for a couple of years in Cape Town followed by some years of inactivity before the bulk of it was created in Hampstead. I think the gestation period has been a wonderful boon to Salem and allowed the book a rich kaleidoscope of styles within styles and captured many passing interests.

How aware did you have to be that you were writing an all-ages, not adults-only, graphic novel?

JHD: Well, when I conceived of Salem, it wasn’t ever particularly for children. In fact, what was strange was that although I hadn’t meant for it to happen, a romance began to blossom between Salem and Cass. I just followed the characters… I still think, like the best children’s literature and fairy tales, there is some pretty dark content here - it’s every bit as much for adults as it is for kids - I think it has a broad appeal.

Walker Books have really pushed the boat out on this one - can you tell me about the print and production highlights?

NS: We were fortunate to work with Patrick Insole, whose input, as well as being well technically masterful, was really very creative and experimental. He was the one who came up with the idea of Cassandra’s speech bubbles being upside-down in the tree scene - an idea which I thought was absolutely priceless. I think we all expected to have different opinions when it came to production but John, Lizzie, Patrick and I were aligned from the start and often had the same ideas. We were all set upon creating a lush, item founded upon classic varieties of nostalgia. The quality of the fine print and cloth cover was a necessary factor. We wanted it to be seen as a luxurious object - a perfect Halloween or Christmas gift.

JHD: Well, from the start we saw it as a kind of Victorian Halloween or Christmas gift. The images are so dense that they need space to breathe - I don’t think in our wildest dreams we could have hoped for more of a kindred spirit than the designer at Walker Books Patrick Insole - he really fought our corner to make this book look the way it does.

I see the opening telegram sent to Salem comes from Azania, the ancient name for South Africa, where you were both born. How do your (South) African roots influence this story?

JHD: Well, we are both from South Africa - and Salem is a strange hybrid of English and American influences like Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft. His neighbourhood was very influenced by Hampstead where a lot of the book was drawn and all of it was written - but I think that reading it, it is hard to place exactly where the story is set… I wanted to ensure that was the case by throwing Azania into the pot….

NS: Well I come from Venus. The Zululand angle is just a cover story to appease the Immigration people…

Who would you cast to play Salem, Cassandra, Lola Q and company in the movie and who would direct it (from your screenplay maybe?)?

JHD: Hm - Tim Burton seems an obvious choice as director - I’m a huge fan of his work. I think Guillermo del Toro is another possibility. I definitely see Ben Whishaw as Salem - smart, cute, and brooding. Harry Treadaway would make a good Ed Harm. I don’t have strong feelings about casting the other roles… I’d like to contribute to a screenplay - but if this is going to be made on the kind of budget I’d hope for, I’d like to leave it to the experts!

NS: Hmmm, lets say Cillian Murphy as Salem. I think people will be tempted to push the Robert Pattinson button - but Salem needs a wry sensibility beneath his dapper exterior. In terms of Cassandra I would be torn between Imogen Poots and Cleménce Poésy. Penelope Cruz or Hayley Atwell as Lola Q, Charlie XCX as Jynx Monkeygirl (I based Jynx on her), Ben Whishaw or Brian Molko as Ed Harm, Casey Affleck as Roscoe Dillinger, Samatha Morton as Lorelei, Bebe Zahara Benet as Cookie Herero, Mick Jagger as Dr Kinoshita… In terms of direction, I like the collaborations that have taken place between Wes Anderson and Henry Selick. I would imagine a co-direction between the two melding live action with stop motion would suit the material to a tee.

Are you brewing a sequel and where might it take our burgeoning necromancer?

JHD: Yup - I’ve got it all mapped out. It’s going to be called The Descent of Belladonna Hemlock - watch this space…

NS: Yes! Though it is still forming and we are currently swapping ‘these are some of my favourite things’ so expect anything from desolate ruins on faraway planets, enchanted forests, street-wise fairies, strange forays into alternate dimensions, young Dr Kinoshita’s, more Lorelei, undersea adventures, a new love interest… ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE…

Posted: October 18, 2009

Photo of John Harris Dunning © Matt Hass

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