“As long as there’s rain in Scotland, there’ll be good writers,” said Robbie Morrison, on the subject of our nation’s solid record in the comics industry. It proved to be some comfort on Sunday, as persistent drizzle and later downpours drove most of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s audiences into the bookshop over the afternoon. It was a good day for reading, particularly after attending Morrison’s Stripped 2014 event with Charlie Adlard. There they spoke about the recent republication of their early collaboration White Death (originally an independent book, now under the Image label), and the circumstances in which it first came together.
Today, Adlard and Morrison are both well established in their own rights – Adlard as the artist who characterised serial phenomenon The Walking Dead, and Robbie Morrison as the co-creator of Nikolai Dante as well as writing for 2000AD and the more recent Drowntown. White Death, however, came long before any of this. It was published “out of pocket” by Adlard — who was keen to work on something he cared about after a frustrating stint on the X-Files comic spin-off — and it sold in relatively low numbers at festivals and across Europe. Adlard described lugging his suitcase heavy with physical books to the Angoulême festival, hoping to sell enough that he would not have to carry them all home again — a frustrating rite of passage familiar to most independent print comic creators.
The X-Files had provided Adlard enough financial security to publish White Death, but did little to raise his stock as an artist. White Death was a solid graphic novel, but it was not the “big break” that either of them had been looking for. Then again, big breaks don’t often happen all at once. What White Death did for Morrison and Adlard was offer a glimpse at a different way of working. There are possibilities in independent comics that writing or drawing for a franchise will never suggest to you. “A light had turned on in the back of my head that would see fruition as time went on,” Adlard said.
From “before they were famous”, Sunday then took me to a look at the difficult post-success novel. Bryan Lee O’Malley, internationally known as the creator of cult hit Scott Pilgrim, appeared to discuss his new and appropriately titled work Seconds. He spoke particularly about his use of assistants in finishing the final Scott Pilgrim book, and of the close collaborations involved in creating Seconds. Working relationships like these are relatively unusual among comic creators in the West, but very much a model which O’Malley seems inclined to pursue.
He “doesn’t play well with others,” he said, in response to a question about whether he would ever work for larger studios like DC or Marvel. Yet, moments later, he went on, “I always fantasise that I’ll find an artist that draws exactly like me, and make them [draw my other ideas]”.
It seems less that Bryan Lee O’Malley has any trouble working with collaborators, and more that he is drawn to the freedom of producing creator-owned comics. He could very easily have gone on to write sequels in the Scott Pilgrim universe (which many people in the audience were clearly hungry for), but this time his interest lay in creating something new and discrete. Seconds has been some time coming, in fact drawing in part from his experiences working in a kitchen during the early development of Scott Pilgrim. Were he working with a major studio, it’s doubtful that he could have moved on from a successful cross-media franchise so easily.
As it is, the success of Scott Pilgrim has meant the opening of new possibilities for O’Malley – from being able to hire assistants and a regular colourist, to the opportunity to be involved in the serial’s screen translation, to becoming an incredible influence on a young generation of readers via his social media presence. During the Q&A, a member of the audience described him as “a loud progressive voice” on issues facing the comic industry as a whole, and again he was free to answer “I don’t want to say comics are terrible … but I kind of do want to say that. [The situation]’s bad.”
It is a recent development that independent and small-press comic creators are able to interact and communicate on the same level as those associated with big name studios. It’s an opportunity for that light described by Charlie Adlard to shine on some of the graphic media which currently enjoys the greatest reach and economic safety. In the mean time, publishers like Image are taking notice of the quality that these freedoms can bring to creator-owned works.
When Adlard returned on Sunday evening to talk about his current work on The Walking Dead, it was in a tone of genuine delight that bore stark contrast to his horror stories about the convoluted production line on the studio-owned X-Files. He is a good match for the series – he clearly cares for the characters he draws, is afforded a level of trust and freedom in the artwork developed over many years, and has created a look for The Walking Dead which is utterly identifiable and has since been taken up with great care by both the television and game spin-off series. “Nobody else draws like that,” Robbie Morrison had said of him earlier in the day, and it is as true of Adlard as it is of Bryan Lee O’Malley.
The kind of success which strengthens a cartoonist is success that only they can achieve – a creative identity that is both recognisable and in demand. Whether the younger Charlie Adlard could have achieved this without his forays into experimental, independent work, it’s hard to know. White Death is a fascinating window into his and Morrison’s early development, in which it’s easy to see the seeds of things which would later become so recognisable. Meanwhile, Seconds is a work at the opposite end of that timeline, in which Bryan Lee O’Malley’s trademark stylisations are growing increasingly distilled, increasingly controlled.
Successes are not predictable, or everybody would have one, but they nearly all begin in the same place. Morrison and Adlard discussing the work being done within their indie collective as they developed White Death, and O’Malley discussing Scott Pilgrim‘s early days, had almost exactly the same thing to say: “I really just made it for my friends.”