It was a warm Saturday morning in London on the 9th of July 2011, and despite the early hour there were nonetheless a number of people on the tube. Students, families tourists, businessmen in suits, the usual crowd. But on this particular day those unfortunates who chose to hop onto the Piccadilly line found themselves avoiding eye contact with a leather-clad nerd wearing a 5-foot gunblade on his back, a smoking hot blonde chick in a lycra Supergirl outfit, several different versions of the Doctor and a whole litter of furries. Yes, once again London Film and Comic Con had invaded the Smoggy City and no one was safe.
It was here that I ran into the promotional team for independently produced graphic novel Twisted Dark, a series of short stories written by newcomer Neil Gibson and drawn by a team of illustrators including Atula Siruwardane, Caspar Wijngaard and Heru Prasetyo Djalal. The congruous ingredient running through them all is that each story is fairly dark, in some cases flirting with the horror genre, and each has some kind of twist at the end (get the title yet?) The stories interconnect in both explicit and subtle ways ways, but in terms of character and setting they are as wide and varied as conceivably possible; the book takes us from India to Norway via Brazil (not the most efficient route, but they do say the journey is the destination) and skillfully captures the culture of whichever country it finds itself in, while the use of different artists deepens the uniqueness of each story.
A few stories in the collection stand out as particularly effective. Munchausen’s Little Proxy skirts the sensitive subject of the attention-seeking disorder Munchausen’s Syndrome by describing the life of Ulara, a single child of wealthy parents living in Rio De Janeiro who seems throughout her life to be suffering from a range of mysterious illnesses. Then there’s Routine, an eerie suspense piece about a father and son living in isolation somewhere in a Norwegian forest in the 1950s. The story takes off when young Koll and the family dog Flaks go out hunting in the woods with a shotgun and don’t come back, forcing the father to go searching for them as the sun begins to set. Finally there’s Cocaína, a crime thriller about the son of a drug dealer attempting to climb the ranks of a Colombian cartel, a tightly written exploration of the gangster genre worthy of shaking hands with Tony Montana.
All the stories mentioned above were illustrated by Caspar Wijngaard, who was representing the comic at LFCC. “I was looking to break into the comic book industry and I couldn’t pass up this opportunity,” he explains when asked about the process of publishing the book. “Neil did pretty much all of it; it’s his baby … it’s his dream. We’re getting really good funding out of it now but originally it was all pretty much self-publication.”
According to Gibson, finding artists to bring his stories to life was and still is a challenge. “I scoured the internet, called up the Royal Art College, looked at indie comics to try and steal illustrators from other projects … I still have a hard time finding them. Often you see portfolios, but what they send is their very best stuff. Then when they start working they haven’t got the chops, or they don’t follow directions, or they’re too slow.
“Caspar is the best one. I love working with Caspar, but he does sometimes ignore me and draw what looks cool rather than what I want! Usually he is right, which is even more annoying.”
One of the stories in the collection takes place in Tokyo, showing the life of a ‘pushman’, an employee of the Tokyo Metro System who is hired to cram passengers onto the city’s overcrowded subway trains during rush hour. Twisted Dark may have come out of the UK, but it seems to have as many roots in manga and Japanese storytelling as it does in American and British comics. “I think it’s quite refreshing because the industry is really oversaturated with superhero stuff right now,” says Wijngaard. “I haven’t seen many comics like this, I have seen a lot of Japanese comics like this which is not unsurprising. I know Neil likes a lot of the old pulp Japanese graphic novels as well so I know he takes a lot from that.”
The artist also explains that, although he rarely reads manga any more, Japanese comic books and artistic styles were a major part of his early reading experiences. “I’ve always been a big fan of Adam Warren (The Dirty Pair, Empowered), because me and my brother were both really into manga when we were younger, starting out with Dragonball Z, and I guess because he was Western but he hit on that style it really appealed to us … I’ve got all of Akira, that was always my favourite growing up, and I read through them again recently. [Laughs] Unfortunately it wasn’t as good as I remembered, the translation’s not particularly great, but it’s still a classic.”
Gibson is planning to publish Volume 2 of Twisted Dark later this year, so like the ruthless truth-seeking missile of journalism that I am, I meekly ask if he can give any hints about it. Other reviewers have criticised Volume 1 for being too heavily narrated, and for being too bleak with very few spots of humour to break up the heavy themes, so Gibson says he plans to improve the storytelling on both fronts. “The narration is greatly reduced with only a couple of the stories having it, and there are three light hearted stories with twists. These serve to give the reader a break from the darkness and also make the darker stories more impactful by comparison.”
Finally, I ask both the artist and writer if they have any other comic-related plans for the future.
Neil says: “I am now working on a new title called Tortured Life in which you see a character’s progression over at least 10 chapters.”
Caspar says: ““I’ve been writing my own comic for a very long time. It’s hard to describe, it’s about a group of… [laughs] This is going to sound so lame. It’s about a group of werewolf ninjas. It’s going to be a lot cooler than it sounds.”
If you want to read Twisted Dark, which I’d highly recommend, you can hook up with Neil and the team at New York Comic Con from the 13th-16th of October, or at London’s MCM Expo from the 28th-30th of October.
If you can’t wait until then, you can buy Volume 1 of Twisted Dark on Amazon. Ignore the sign that says “Out of stock”, it’s just a clever ruse and there are in fact copies available.