Yesterday, John Harris Dunning talked to Matt Fitch and Chris Baker about Apollo. Today they swap places, Matt Fitch and Chris Baker talk to John Harris Dunning about his SelfMadeHero bok, Tumult.
What did you start with when you first began Tumult? Was there an idea that spawned the story?
I had a serious accident a few years back that made me question my mortality. I’d never even had a sprain, let alone broken anything. It really shook me up, but I was determined to make something positive out of this experience. That’s how Tumult was born. So I started with the main character Adam having to face his physical vulnerability – and then going on to interrogate everything in his life.
Filmmaker David Lynch explained the core of his oblique masterpiece INLAND EMPIRE with devastating simplicity: A woman in trouble. I used that as my starting point for my female lead, Leila. It’s such a basic plot device, but like myths, the most basic stories are the most powerful. Artist Cindy Sherman’s series Untitled Film Stills – shot over the period of 1977 to 1980 – was another inspiration for Leila. In these black and white self-portraits Sherman poses in various costumes in scenes reminiscent of Film Noir, sketching an elusive narrative just beyond the viewer’s grasp. I liked that feeling of ineffable mystery.
The ending resembles a Hitchcock high point finish. I’m sort of itching to keep turning the pages. Is that ending an artistic licence at play or the possibility of a sequel?
I’m fascinated by the puzzle box quality of crime fiction, the almost mathematical precision of plotting it requires. I wanted to give myself that challenge with this graphic novel. The crime genre allows a writer to explore extreme situations and abnormal mental states, really laying bare the human condition; we only really learn who we are under duress. I think the Hitchcock reference is more accurate of my motivation than me leaving the door open for a sequel. Having said that, when I read the finished book I did start to have thoughts about what would happen next to these characters, so never say never…
While reading I found myself relating very much to protagonist Adam – I liked his attitude and saw parallels with his experiences and my own. But I know that you yourself are very different to him, so I’d like to know how you went about creating this totally believable human being from scratch? Is he based on anybody?
I’m really pleased. This relates to the central idea of multiple personalities, and the performance of identity. As a 24-year old white English-speaker arriving in London from South Africa I was immediately assumed to be ‘one of us’. It was a real culture shock. Because of Apartheid we’d been under a ‘state of emergency’, and there had been a blanket media ban that didn’t just cover the news and news publications, but also TV and films. I’d never watched British TV, or much British cinema, so I didn’t get a lot of cultural references. I didn’t understand the school system, what the different accents were, or the subtleties of British slang. Even the fact that houses were joined was strange to me! How then to write British characters? It took me a long time.
This sense of dislocation was compounded by the fact that when I wrote about my African experience, it wasn’t considered ‘African enough’. I actually got that feedback about an autobiographical piece I wrote – from a British publisher who had never visited Africa! I’d learned all about masks and passing as a gay kid – so it wasn’t that hard to get on with it and learn how to mimic fitting in. We’re all in disguise, to some extent. So, my challenge was to create a believable, straight, British character. I built him up from years of careful observation, and also borrowed hometowns and certain experiences from a few British friends. I really liked Adam by the end, so I’m pleased you identified with him. I didn’t always want him to be likeable, and wanted him to make mistakes. We all do.
I think being an outsider is valuable as a writer, as an artist in general. My pin up boys for it as a kid were William Burroughs and David Bowie. They elevated their posiiton to something that was enviable. I now genuinely believe it is.
Which character in Tumult do you most identify with and why?
I suppose I identify with Adam, as well as with the female lead Leila – in a way they could be read as the anima and animus of the same character. I like inhabiting male and female characters. I really enjoyed writing the supporting cast – Adam’s charmingly demented best friend Marek, the arms dealer, Mr Bright – and I found that even if I didn’t share their views I could understanding their perspectives.
How did you find artist Michael Kennedy?
With any project you need some good luck to give it that magical component – in this case it was finding artist Michael Kennedy. I was introduced to him by my fairy godfather in comics, artist Christian Ward. Michael really connected with the script, immediately shooting back a 100-page mood board for Tumult, including a colour palette. He also coloured the book. As soon as I received the mood board I knew I could trust him 100-percent. We were then able to open a dialogue that was probably the most enjoyable and exciting part of the process. The collaboration between writer and artist – if it works, that is – can be the most enjoyable part of the process. It’s really intense, and getting artwork back is like getting Christmas presents, every time. It’s magic. He really elevated the script and took the comic to the next level.
I get an underlying homoerotic vibe from this book, primarily Adam and Marek. Its very refreshing to not have sexuality be a stick on a character. They felt much more modern and relatable. Was this a conscious choice and how does this relate to your own experiences as a gay man?
I’m sure it’s there. In the book I reference Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks in connection to Adam and Marek; these writers’ relationships have been an inspiration to me from early manhood. They were really supportive, and incredibly close, with subtle and shifting sexual attachments to each other. But their loyalty to each other’s work never wavered. They were very suspicious of labelling themselves sexually, thereby allowing anyone to define them. On a less highbrow level, yes, the main character Adam does seem to take his top off an awful lot… I do like a good torso.
Masculinity feels like a very strong theme in Tumult. I’d liken it to something like Fight Club or American Psycho. All areas feel well covered. Care to elaborate on your train of thought?
It fascinates me. As a gay man growing up in the strictly heterosexual culture of 80s Apartheid South Africa made me extremely aware of the performance of masculinity, and learned definitions of manhood. I’m a huge believer that to a large extent we performance gender. I’ve seen too many stupid men talking in boardrooms while intelligent women sit patiently by to believe the stereotypes… Having said that, there’s a lot to celebrate and enjoy about masculinity. During my childhood I didn’t feel I was ‘allowed’ to like action movies; in my view, they were films made by ‘the oppressor’. Some friends of mine, Andy and Woody, refused to let me get away with this thinking and demanded I watch the films that became Marek’s Man Movies film column in Tumult, films like Die Hard, First Blood, Predator and Terminator. I loved these films. I had allowed myself to be constrained by social expectations – in this case, my own! It was a real lesson to me. Of course we all have contradictory passions. That’s what makes us interesting.
Let’s get all Fox Mulder for a moment and talk about the conspiracy plot in what is overwise a very character-driven story. Do you believe MK Ultra is real? Is Project Babushka based on real history, or is there some more personal inspiration for this aspect of the story?
This book is partly a love letter to the part of North London I live in, namely Hampstead and Highgate. There’s something really magical and gothic about it. Tim Burton lives here. It’s got a great history of resident artists, writers, and occultists. Sylvia Plath wrote her most important work and died locally. Seminal gothic novel The Woman in White starts at the bottom of my road. Freud lived and died here. The Tavistock Institute was set up locally, the centre of the web of many conspiracy theories about mind control and MK ULTRA. The idea of Project Babushka just naturally evolved from all of these stories. Sure, MK ULTRA was real – but do I believe that these people were successful at what they were trying to achieve? No. But all the mind control projects I refer to are well documented, and a matter of public record now.
In Tumult, you merge the languages of comic books and prose novels, creating a truly ‘graphic novel’. Was that a conscious decision or simply a matter of style?
I just did what came naturally, but I can see both of these elements present. One inspiration for the style of Tumult is the underrated classic Wild Palms by writer Bruce Wagner and artist Julian Allen, initially published as a serial in Details magazine, then later adapted into a TV show, directed by Oliver Stone. Neither of the creators had worked in comics before, and neither of them did again. It has a really fresh feel, seeming not to spring from any clear comics tradition, but really making the most of the form. I can’t recommend it highly enough. My book turned out quite different, but it put me on my own path, and opened up the possibility of doing exactly what I pleased.
Was there a point in your career when you decided ‘I want to be a writer’ or was it more of a gradual metamorphosis? Did you pursue it or ‘stumble into’ it?
I always knew I wanted to tell stories, and I consumed comics, prose and films from childhood, but I didn’t think for a moment that these paths were realistically open to me as a career. There were no comics, publishing or film industries in South Africa to speak of when I was growing up. Nevertheless, I found myself reading and viewing material with a competitive attitude, thinking, “I could do that better”, or, “How the hell did he/ she manage to create such a perfect story?” I wanted to do the same. I felt like I had to take my passion and do something with it – it wasn’t enough simply to consume material. I think it’s a similar story for all artists, whatever their medium.
You’ve written for The Guardian, Esquire and GQ to name just a few… but comics seem to be your medium of choice for storytelling. What is it about the medium that makes you gravitate towards it over others?
I’ve written journalism and prose fiction, but comics are my first love. I have various theories about why that is, but the bottom line is they turn me on most. I’m most engaged reading them. It’s got something to do with the combination of words and pictures on the page that create something bigger than the sum of their parts. Also, watching moving image is a more passive experience – you don’t control the unravelling of the story. I like being able to jump backwards and forwards, or to pause as I’m reading. Unlike visual mediums like film or television, the only budget constraint on comics is the artists’ time. I always say that comics are a medium, not a genre, but because of the cultural space they’ve traditionally inhabited – flying below the radar critically – comics have been an area where really unfettered imagination has been expressed. They share this in common with certain types of pulp fiction from the 1920s through 1960s in America. They documented an outpouring of outlandish material, including fantasy, science fiction, the occult, UFOlogy that continues to power culture today. This was the kind of work that inspired more ‘literary’ writers like William Burroughs. They’re an unfiltered snapshot of the subconscious mind of the Western World.
What big title would you most enjoy writing and how would you make your mark on them?
I’d love to work with a visionary editor like Gerard Way – I was so impressed with what he did with his Young Animal imprint. Everything editor Will Moss at Marvel does is amazing too. In terms of particular titles, I like my super-heroines – so Vixen, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, Amethyst, Wonder Woman. I think I’ve got something fresh to say about all of these fierce ladies. I grew up with superhero comics, then graduated onto indie classics like Dan Clowes’ Ghost World and Charles Burns’ Black Hole – but I never stopped loving superheroes. Karen Berger’s idea of giving weird, neglected Silver Age characters to new writers to make their mark on was inspired. I’d love to do that.
Tumult is out now from SelfMadeHero.
The ‘Art of Apollo and Tumult’ Exhibition is on display in the Orbital Comics Gallery from 15th-30th August. Free Entry.
Matt, Chris and John will be joined by Mike Collins, Michael Kennedy and SelfMadeHero’s Head of Sales and Marketing, Sam Humphrey, for a live Q&A in Orbital Comics on 16th August, 7:30PM. Free Entry.
For more info on John’s work, follow @johnhdunning