AUTUMN OF INDIE: Interview with the Creators of Black Leaf

We have already talked to John Lees and Garry McLaughlin separately looking at their own individual projects. But now we are going to look at a project they are working on together; a stand alone graphic novel entitled Black Leaf.

Geek Syndicate (GS): John, Garry, hi! You are both working on a graphic novel together entitled Black Leaf. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea?

John Lees (JL):It came from a couple of things.  First was an issue of genre.  With The Standard, I was finally telling my own superhero story, based on a lifelong love of superheroes.  Well, once that was done, one of the biggest itches I wanted to scratch next was tackling horror.  I’ve long loved horror as a genre, and wanted to experiment with using the comic medium to tell the kind of horror story that I as a reader would find scary.  Typically, when comics have done horror, it’s been about monsters and gore, but more recently comics like Echoes and Severed have demonstrated how you can stuff that’s more atmospheric and build around steadily escalating dread.  I wanted to try something along those lines.  Second was an issue of format.  The Standard is a 6-issue miniseries, and in contrast I wanted to do something more contained, a standalone tale in the graphic novel format.

GS: Can you tell us a wee bit more about the story?

Garry McLaughlin (GM): It’s a story about death really, or mortality. A young boy who hasn’t seen his Granda for years is taken by his parents to visit him because he’s dying. He keep running away from it though, not wanting to face his Granda. Near where his Granda stays, he meets a young girl about his ages, who spends all her time in the woods. They become friends, and she shows him the secret of the woods – a tree that can heal and revive. Stuart thinks this miraculous tree could save his Granda, but as you can imagine, there are dire consequences when he does so…

JL: Yeah, from there it’s best to see for yourself how the story develops, but since this is the horror genre you can guess that things don’t go well!

GS: As you are both Scottish, did you feel an urge to create a story set in Scotland or is this just a happy coincidence?

JL: I would say that it played a factor.  I’ve been aware of the fact that, with my debut comic, I was quick to set it in America.  So for subsequent scripts I’ve written, I’ve explored the idea of setting them in Glasgow, and thought about what a Scottish voice brings to the story.  With Black Leaf, the story is set up in the Highlands, and so there is some consideration of what “Scottish horror” might evoke.

GM: This isn’t a first for me, almost every piece of comic work I’ve done has been set in Glasgow or Scotland. Maybe that’s why John thought of me for it!

GS: When creating the pages, are there any creators that have inspired you in the way you wanted the book to look and feel?

GM: I knew as soon as I talked to John about the story that I wanted to try something new, and ink wash was right there at the start. So I’ve been looking a lot at folk like Jill Thomson, who does wonderful comic work with watercolour, and Francis Manapul, who does the same in a different way. I was also looking at Gothic children’s books, fairytales etc. Woodcuts, that sort of thing. John specified early on that he wanted to use a solid 6 panel structure for the interior, house-bound pages and something looser for the rest, the ones in the forest.

I decided to use big meta-panels, an idea cribbed from Will Eisner, who did such amazing stuff that’s rarely used these days. Actually, until recently, but Yanick Paquette and J H Williams III have both re-introduced the meta-panel in recent years to great effect, so they were also influences. By meta-panel, I mean using the page as a panel, and using elements of the page content to form smaller panels. So we’ve got panels burrowed out of dark, twisting tree branches and things. It’s a really different style for me.

JL: I’ve been so impressed with the work Garry’s been doing for this.  “Dark children’s book” was a term I’d thrown around a couple of times when discussing the vibe I had in mind, and Garry has absolutely captured that in his work.  Eerie, ethereal, but also packed with raw emotion in the right places.  Something that impresses me so much is how versatile Garry continues to be as an artist.  You could look at his work on Taking Flight, the Doggy-Boy short story he did with me, his Year of Fear horror comics, his Suddenly Something Really Interesting webcomic, some of the concepts for his upcoming crazed sci-fi epic Gonzo Cosmic and his spectacular pages for Black Leaf, and could be forgiven for thinking each comes from a different artist.  He has a great talent for shifting his creative voice to fit the story he’s telling.

GS: How has the collaboration between the two of you occurred and how is it different to other creators you have worked with?

JL: Black Leaf was interesting for me, as it was the first project I’d ever done where, from the earliest point of development, I had a specific artist in mind.  I had enjoyed working with Garry on a short story called The Awesome Doggy-Boy for the GLoW 1 anthology, and when I first thought up the rough outline of the story for Black Leaf, in my mind I imagined the ethereal style of Garry McLaughlin best bringing it to life.  So I sent him an e-mail pitching him the idea, and thankfully he was interested!

Of course, the artist I have most experience working with is Jonathan Rector, who lives in Canada, so the biggest difference working with Garry McLaughlin has been being able to meet up with my artist face-to-face!  We’ve been able to meet up for lunch or drinks or whatever, and just talk about the story.  He’s been able to show me his notepad full of rough designs and thumbnails, and somehow that’s even more exciting than getting those things in your e-mail inbox!  It definitely feels like a more personal collaboration, which I like.

GM: it’s also been a really easy collaboration for me – not only is John’s script really tight and well described, but we’ve got exactly the same ideas about how it should look. He’s also cool with letting the artist experiment a little and work out layouts and things.

It’s not the first time I’ve drawn something that was written with me in mind, but somehow it probably feels like the most collaborative book I’ve worked on. Plus John’s just a really enthusiastic creator – with ambition too. That’s really great to work with.

GS: Did you discuss the way that you wanted the book to look and feel? Eg the type of style you were going for?

GM: I’ve talked a bit already about the artists that inspired the look, but right away, I think we both knew that we wanted this to be a beautiful book if possible, some for all the bibliophiles out there. I’d love to see it in hardback, with thick paper, and an embossed cover, something really simple and graphic on the front. Whether we achieve that or not, I’ll be aiming to make it look classy and kind of timeless, whatever format we use. There’s very little in the book to date it, I don’t know if that was deliberate on John’s part… It’s a timeless classic in the making!

JL: A timeless classic in the making, I like that!  Can we put that as a slugline on the front cover, or is it poor form to have glowing praise from the creative team as a review quote?  I think Uwe Boll did that on the poster for one of his films.

But yeah, the two of us talked quite a bit about how we wanted this to look as a physical product.  There’s something about a nice, sturdy hardcover edition that I love to get my sweaty comic collector hands on, and we both were in agreement that we’d love for this to be something substantial on your bookshelf.

GS: What made you decide that Black Leaf suited the graphic novel format better than the comic book one?

JL: I think it’s what the story demanded.  It’s ultimately a pretty simple tale, and dragging it out over multiple issues would have just watered it down.  As a graphic novel, it’s very focused, and can build up at its own pace rather than being engineered around cliffhangers and chapter breaks.  I love serialized narratives as well, and have more of those in the pipeline after Black Leaf, but the standalone graphic novel was a format I was really intrigued about tackling.

GM: Although it was John’s idea, I’m with it 100%. I don’t think it would work as a series at all, the rhythms and beats would all be different. The graphic novel format’s letting us both stretch out in a way single issues wouldn’t. I jumped at the chance to do something long form like this; but come back to me at the end and it might be a different story!

Reporter: Luke Halsall

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