What comic work has inspired you?
I think the whole reason I got into comics in the first place was Calvin and Hobbes. I must have started reading it back when I was the same age as Calvin—I was jealous that he could use longer words than I could—and I’ve never gotten tired of it. There’s also a bit of a nod to Hobbes’s undisclosed origins in Brülightly’s own mysterious existence. The list of other personal favorites contains such heroes as Guy Delisle, Lewis Trondheim, Nicolas De Crécy, Dave McKean, and Guarnido and Canales. Top of the heap, though, has to be Chris Ware. I have a thing for troubled characters in stories generally, and the man is a genius at creating solid and believable souls who at the same time, like Jimmy Corrigan, are essentially nonentities in their own world.
Can you tell us a little about the setting of Britten and Brülightly?
England in the 1940s but without the war. I love the tone of American noir of the same era, and so I stole it and transplanted it here, where it could grow a sense of despondency all of its own. Something to do with the weather, maybe. It seemed to fit so well in a period when people were supposed to ignore the horror surrounding them and pull together for the greater good, when despair was taboo but endemic. The book is set in a nondescript city, but there’s a lot of Brighton (my adopted town) in it. Brighton is a popular seaside resort an hour south of London. Off-season it’s dark, sullen, and pensive, like it’s waiting for bad news. Perfect for noir.
Tea figures prominently in this book. Can you say something about that?
If you should find yourself in the United Kingdom and the victim of some terrible situation, you might notice that those helping you will do something rather peculiar: after all the obvious things, like calling the police and such, they will make you a cup of tea. This is probably something that began with the U.K. war generations—people who lived through a time when life was snuffed out unflinchingly. National morale was low, and the collective mentality was driven to find some small comfort, something to raise the spirits.
Tea was already high up on the British list of sacred items: just days after the outbreak of the Second World War, the government ordered all the tea reserves that were stored in London be moved to various warehouses around the country to protect it from bombing. Tea was an all-important standard to rally around. It became more than just a national beverage; it became an act of defiance against misery and despair. As the book takes place around a time when tea was most valued as a pick-me-up, it is an appropriate comfort for Britten.
The artwork is very painterly, very close to fine art. Can you describe how you came to this style for Britten and Brülightly?
I copied the French. No, really. Comics (bandes dessinées over there) are a valid art form just across the channel. A lot of training and time and effort goes into the artwork itself, and the results are stunning. The depth of their images are something else altogether. Coming from Britain’s culture where comics are supposed to be disposable (where, sadly, even graphic novels are still widely dismissed as puerile), I was quite taken aback by this, almost overjoyed that I could create a comic that didn’t have to be throwaway. I wanted to write something that had as much value as a novel, and I hoped that if I invested a lot of time in painting it, readers would invest the same amount of time in reading it—well, not the same amount, that would take years, but a proportional amount.
Critics have already commented on how cinematic the book is. Did you intend for it to feel this way?
In a sense, yes. Although I’ve been a comics reader since I was young, I also have a deep love for films. I think that at times, when I ran into difficulties, my film knowledge often outweighed my comics knowledge. The inner film geek stepped up and solved the problem. Interestingly, I think that may make the book more accessible to people who are less used to reading comics.
Britten and Brülightly is about loss but very, very funny as well. What are your influences when it comes to the novel’s clever wit?
There’s quite a tradition of dark humor here in the United Kingdom—of funny moments that at times are, for all intents and purposes, quite tragic. There’s a whole vein of very dark comedy that is laugh-out-loud funny even when the humor is deeply inappropriate, or bleak, or just plain grotesque. I love them. I love comedy found in unexpected places, it seems more sincere somehow. Who says a book about murder, suicide, and depression can’t also be amusing?