Thursday, 31 January 2013

On "Babble", with an interview with its creators Lee Robson & Bryan Coyle

As keen as I am to avoid seeming to be biased, I'd struggle to recommend that you avoid reading Bryan Coyle and Lee Robson's Babble. For even given that I've always found both Bryan and Lee to be excellent company when it comes to swapping words over the blogosphere, I can't affect a dubious critical objectivity and pretend that I didn't find their debut graphic novel both enjoyable and intriguing. *1) It's a smart-minded book which succeeds in merging an indy, slice'o'life fascination with a unique take on a horror-genre staple that I'd never dream of giving away. An hour or two spent in the company of Babble is unlikely to be time ill-spent, and if I tell you that I received a PDF of it prior to its publication and still went on to buy the softbacked version, you'll understand my regard.

*1:- Occasional visitors to TooBusyThinking's comments may know Bryan as the "Brigonos" who's never intimidated by the thought of expressing an honest - and even incendiary - opinion.

In some ways, Babble reminds me of an auspicious wave of British graphic novels and strips by relatively unknown creators which arrived in the later, post-Watchmen years of the eighties. For the likes of James Robinson and Paul Johnson's London's Dark, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's Violent Cases and Mark Millar, Daniel Vallely, and Nigel Kitching's Saviour also seemed to appear out of the blue, the products of creators who'd yet to establish any considerable commercial reputation, energetically rough-hewn in a few places and yet quite obviously deserving of attention. After its own fashion, and according to the particular talents of its creators, Babble's similarly informed by a distinctly this-side-of-the-Atlantic sensibility which fuses everyday drama with elements of more dramatically pulse-quickening fictions. It may also herald a couple of notable comics careers. I'd like to think so.

In the interview which follows, I tried to concentrate on the long road which separated Bryan and Lee's awareness that they'd like to create comics with the publication of Babble. There's been a good few interviews with them elsewhere which focused in part on other matters, and so I thought it would be interesting to learn more of what it takes to get as substantial a piece of work as Babble into print. It's a protracted and challenging slog from "I'd like to do that" to "Look at my new graphic novel", and I thought it might be illuminating to get the pair of them to discuss that. That it's a fairly long interview is entirely my fault. I was curious to know, and so I kept asking. My thanks to Bryan and Lee for their time and good will.

The Babble homepage can be reached with just a click here. You'll find everything from reviews - from the likes of CBR, Bleeding Cool and Starburst Magazine - to preview pages and ordering information.


1.  I know that you two didn’t simply appear out of nowhere, complete with all the skills that you'd need to produce a graphic novel! So where can your previously published work can be found?

Bryan:-  My very first work was either Binmen of the Apocalypse for Michael Molcher's The End Is Nigh magazine, the self-published Pony School, or a three-pager for FutureQuake that one of the editors described as being so bad that if he'd known what the art would look like he'd have not bothered letting me draw it.  They all sort of came at the same time, but I'm reasonably certain Pony School came out first.  After that, it was various small press titles for several years, short stories where I learned to draw better and build a reputation - good or bad.

I appeared in the End Is Nigh a couple more times, and the first couple of issues of MangaQuake and Something Wicked, then tried more self-publishing, dabbled with webcomics for about ten seconds, more self-publishing, Paul Scott's Omnivistascope annuals, the Accent UK graphic novel anthologies, more self-publishing, the odd FutureQuake one-off, and Zarjaz.  Solar Wind was in there somewhere, as was Sancho, Puny Earthling, Lost Property, and a brief flirtation with doing an OEL manga, God help me.

Lee:- There's not much to tell, really. I’ve largely been a contributor to FutureQuake and the titles that fall under their umbrella (Something Wicked, Zarjaz and Dogbreath); my first published work with them – and my first published comic strip - was Box, with Lonny Chant. There’s been a few more acceptances – and rejections – from them, too, as well as stuff in the Accent UK anthologies (three of those in collaboration with Bryan) and Stacey Whittle’s Into The Woods, as well as several comics that never saw the light of day, which is probably for the best. But, like Bryan, it’s been the small press that I’ve learned the craft and tried to build a reputation, good or bad.

2.  How was the journey from your first appearances in print to Babble? How difficult was it to get from there to here?

Lee:- Nothing like a nice easy question…

It’s been…interesting, let’s say.

I made the conscious decision to learn how to write comics by concentrating on short stories, which proved to be a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, it really did help me learn storytelling and how to script comics (I think it was Kieron Gillen that said – and I’m paraphrasing here - actually seeing your scripts drawn by an artist was invaluable, because you could see what works and what doesn’t in a way you can’t see in a script), and actually being paired up with the artists for FutureQuake was a Godsend for me because I didn’t really know anybody at the time and had even less idea what to do when it came to self-publishing (although, credit where it’s due: Ed Berridge was a huge help in getting those early scripts into shape, Steven Finch – pre-Fonografiks – put me onto Digital Webbing and my friend Ian Cairns was a huge supporter and taught me a lot about sequential narrative – and, of course, Dave and Rich at FutureQuake have been brilliant and supportive from day one).

But on the other hand, just doing shorts with artists assigned to a script I’d written proved to be an incredibly difficult way to build working relationships as everything seemed to be over and done with so quickly, sometimes with little or no communication (although, personal relationships came much easier – especially with the rise of social media). I was pretty lucky that I hit it off with Bryan and we could move on to do something more than just our initial FutureQuake collaboration.

The Accent UK anthologies gave us the chance to work together more (and get ourselves noticed: the amount of people who recognised us from Western still surprises me), and we started talking about doing something longer – although, some of those early ideas I pitched, I think, are probably best left in the bottom drawer, never to see daylight again. Eventually, I shoved the original short story of Babble under his nose and asked him about it; it felt like this was right thing for both of us to do at that point and, thankfully, Bryan agreed. So, we started re-building the script into a full length story and refining the pitch for it while doing other small press work. I started writing the script without realising how much of a challenge it would be to go from five or eight page stories to something that was over a hundred. I just went into assuming it would be pretty easy, but I ended up learning the hard way that it’s best to break down scripts to the nth degree, so I know everything that happens on each page before I start typing it up.
Once the pitch for Babble was ready, it went everywhere. It went to publishers of varying sizes on both sides of the Atlantic and came back with the same response each time: “thanks, but no thanks”. It was disheartening, I’ll admit, but, at the same time, it was a pretty invaluable learning experience. I mean, I’d literally never tried to pitch a comic series in my life; I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I, stupidly, dived straight in feet first, thinking that publishers would snatch it up and make us both stars overnight. Which, of course, they didn’t. I think that kind of wake up call did me good, really. It made me more determined to make this succeed, anyway.

We were turned on to Insomnia Publications, who, at the time, looked liked an exciting new kid on the UK scene. They signed Babble pretty much straight away and we started work on it in earnest until… Well, the company break up’s been pretty well documented, so let’s not dwell on it, other than to say we were left in legal limbo for a long time, and we moved on do other small press stuff to keep ourselves busy (that was around the time I started pitching to Zarjaz, as it goes). We started to talk about pitching Babble somewhere else and eventually took a shot in the dark submitting what we had to Com.X. I’m still not sure why they wanted to take it on, to be honest, but they did, and, once we were free of our contracts, they signed the book immediately, and, I think, surprised a lot of people in the process.

From there, work progressed steadily, health and technical problems came and went [Bryan may fill in more on that front] and we got to where we are now. A mere three years after we started working on it.

I guess this is all a stupidly long winded way of saying, I’ve learned a lot about the creative side of the comics world through the process, and a little about the business side of things. Most of it was learned the hard way, and I’m pretty sure there are more mistakes to be made along the way. It’ll be fun figuring them out, I suppose.

A Robson/Coyle Judge Dredd tale for Zarjaz.
Bryan: I don't know that it was difficult in that it was a slog or anything because I was obviously enjoying doing it (or I wouldn't have kept doing it) and the UK small press scene is very encouraging of creatives, especially the lads at FutureQuake and Michael Molcher when he was putting together The End Is Nigh rated enthusiasm as the main requirement for submissions, but it was certainly difficult in that I had to learn to draw along the way.  It's a nurturing environment, so it hasn't been terribly difficult to keep going - I mean, it's not like DC where they get interns to make the freelance talent cry for their own amusement or anything.

Since leaving school, my only art experience was doodling rude cartoons as I watched telly at home or drank tea at work, which was great if you wanted a picture of your boss having sex with a gorilla under the words JIMMY GOES APE FOR JUNGLE FANNY but is not a help if you want someone to draw you the new Watchmen.

I don't know what the perceived method of breaking into comics is these days, but I recall Garth Ennis joking that it was seen to be “get something in 2000ad, do some z-list superhero crap for DC or Marvel and then do a rude comic for Vertigo and never look back”, but the trajectory I have observed seems to be “do lots and lots of stuff for the small press FOR YEARS and maybe one day you get paid to do it”, and by accident I did that first part because I was in and out of jobs and had lots of free time. I didn't start out taking the art deadly seriously because I started out doing comedy strips like Binmen of the Apocalypse and Pony School and I had that awful preconception at the time that a lot of people have that "comedy" strips means less effort on the art front, and even when I had to draw something that was meant to be deadly serious it was usually only to spoof the tone of something like kids' horror comics or war stories, but I did eventually start taking it seriously, put away the silly pen-names like Mongoose MacCloud and tried to improve as an artist. That was when it started getting difficult, I think, but even then I was still making comics, so I was enjoying myself. I mean, I got to draw Shako for Zarjaz, and when someone actually wants you to draw a polar bear mauling people to death, that's when you know the world is okay.

3. Babble strikes me as being in some ways a difficult trick to pull off. In terms of the script, you’re playing with the likes of shifting time-periods, apparently distinct genres and even different continents, amongst other demanding choices. (I’m doing my best to keep away from spoilers!) In the art, there’s a great many examples of the kind of everyday - or apparently everyday - scenes which some professionals would run a mile from. So why such a tough task? Why eschew all the shortcuts and audience appeal offered by more immediately obvious tales of the fantastic? What was it this project that you committed yourselves to, and how did your feelings about Babble change -  for good or ill – as the process continued?

Lee:- Well, basically, most of it was to see how far I could push Bryan before he told me where to stick it…

Seriously, though, it was born out of a lot of different things. I’ve always had a passion for stories that see ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and I wrote a fair few prose stories that followed that template – in fact, it was the basis for the very, very first version of Babble (which was a few passages of handwritten prose in a notebook, never actually completed). As I got into writing comics, I started to look at bigger, more fantastic concepts to build stories around, but I always tried – and not always necessarily succeeded, I’ll admit – to keep the central characters grounded and human. It made them more interesting to me.

So that, really, was my main starting point with Babble. I’d fallen out of reading comics for a while before I started writing this, too, so I didn’t really know what the trends of the day were (although, now it all seems to be a Geoff Johns inspired mire of angst and violence). I came back to comics through reading Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil and Brian Wood’s Demo and Local, both of which had a profound influence on me; they were comics that were showing the humanity of these characters in ways that I hadn’t really seen before in the medium before (I’d largely concentrated around DC superhero stuff and 2000AD collections). So, I knew that I wanted to bring that into Babble in some way, because I was foolish enough to think “hey, if they can do it, I can do it, too!” without realising they were professionals on top of their game, while I was just a chancer with little hope of ever seeing the piece finished. I think, too, there was an unconscious desire to inject some of that trademark British cynicism that permeated the UK comics of the 1980’s that I grew up reading (I think, in an early draft, Carrie was on the dole, which seemed like the most British thing that could’ve been put into the story at the time).

When we started to look at it as a long form project, I was determined to keep it as grounded and realistic as possible (which, in turn, ultimately dictated a lot of the narrative decisions), and there were a lot of things that, if I’m being honest, I’m still stunned, and truly grateful, Bryan stuck with me and backed me on (and there’s a fair few that he actually improved on); a lot of other artists probably would’ve walked away from it or at least demanded we have an atypical sexy heroine as our lead, complete with “brokeback poses” and skimpy clothes, or more traditional zombies and/or more gore and violence.

All that said, though, we also made a lot of commercial decisions to give the story a wider appeal to readers and publishers (the idea of setting the bulk of it in America was one, and the use of zombie imagery and tropes in the early pages was another); as the process went on, all those things became integral to the story, which – as wanky and pretentious as this sounds – was the most important thing for me.

That tone we set proved to be a bit of a pain at times, though. There were some things I couldn’t do in the script because of the rules I’d set up for myself at the beginning, which proved to be more restricting than I realised (flashbacks to ancient Sumer, for example, were a no-no, because it added an element of fantasy that would’ve broken the whole thing apart), but it forced me think about the structure more and concentrate on keeping everything together. Elements of Carrie and Alan’s relationship proved to be a little difficult to write, too, largely because – and I know Bryan’s already made this public over on his blog – I started writing Babble after a break-up, and I was still clinging onto the hope that we’d get back together and give it another go. A lot of their relationship was influenced by that, but once it was established in the story I couldn’t break away from it and change it. It was a bit rough editing and re-writing some of those scenes, and, frankly, it’s not something I want to do again.

As for the different time periods… That was in there from the start. I knew that the bulk of the appeal would be from the present day sequences, with Carrie being chased by the infected, because, hey, everyone loves a good zombie tale, but at the same time, I knew I wanted to add some kitchen sink drama to the story, to tell you how this all happened, to build the mystery, so I came up with the idea of having the rotating timelines through the story to balance everything. It was a bastard and a half to script, though, mainly because I went into it with nothing but a story outline and a vague idea about how I wanted to write the thing - which is now one of those mistakes that I keep in mind whenever I start something new.

I knew, too, going in that it’d be tricky to visualise, but Bryan came up with the idea of using those differing palettes and, well, it was a stroke of genius, frankly.

Bryan: I don't know that we're unique in doing something so grounded in reality, as most editors and talent scouts tell you to draw everyday scenes rather than just pin-ups and fights all the time and I'd imagine most budding creators take that advice to heart.

Fantastic tales obviously still hold an appeal for me and I like to read stories about big robots battering each other with buses full of dino-ninjas wailing on each other while screaming that the world is doomed if they can't defuse this bomb, but actually drawing just that and nothing else all the time doesn't hold much appeal.  I imagine it's the same as how drawing skulls and snakes all the time probably gets old even if you're a really committed heavy metal fan.  Even Ozzy Ozbourne got up one day and thought "I can snort some ants and strangle my wife or I can check the Discovery Channel and see if there's a documentary about sharks on" - if you're at all creatively inclined you like to spread your wings now and then and do new stuff, and I think Babble being so down to Earth appealed to me at the right time.

I'd drawn schoolgirl assassins, a killer moose stalking the trenches of WW1, posthuman androids versus living cities, vampires from space, time travelling superhero sidekicks, Super Sentai, zombies, ninjas, dinosaurs, mutant bounty hunters, Fred Wertham, voodoo priests, werewolves... like Lee and everyone else in the small press, I did lots and lots of short stories and covered a variety of genres and subjects, but I did not have an extensive portfolio of people being human.  Babble was a good fit for that and other reasons.

Some of the hurdles involved seemed interesting, too - conversations, body language, creating visual subtext in scenes, juggling a cast of visually distinctive characters with their own way of moving and acting on the page, it was something to get my teeth into, and more importantly it was everything that interested me about comics storytelling.  For all my love of the wilfully ludicrous in comic books, Thor can only punch something in an interesting fashion so often before I get bored, but make me believe in a breakup, or a death, or that someone feels love and it'll get me every time - and I want to do that in comics more than I want to draw Batman.  I developed RSI halfway through making the book but I still kept my enthusiasm for the project because there was always some small thing that I liked to realise in panels or even in character's expressions or body language that kept me interested in each page and kept me struggling through.  I am my own worst critic so all I would see when I was done with a page was where I hadn't matched ambition with execution, but there was always something on each page to keep me interested and keep me working, even when my bloody arms felt like they were going to fall off.

4. As luck would have it, this particular question is heading to you just as the release dates for Babble are confirmed. A quick question then; how does it feel, to think that all the work you’ve been doing will have a physical as well as a digital form?

Lee: Honestly? I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet. I’ve seen comics I’ve written in print before, but, so far, it’s always been as a small part of a larger whole, where my stuff can be hidden behind brilliant artwork, which is, sometimes, hidden behind even better stories in the same comic. But Babble is, for better or worse, just the two of us without the luxury of being able to hide behind anyone else, and, honestly, I’m kind of terrified by that.
So, to answer your question, I’m scared and excited and pretty much everything else in between.

Bryan: Well, I have (or had) physical copies of all the books I've contributed to over the years - or self-published - and I love all my babies equally, Colin.  Even if the older ones currently disappoint me and occasionally make me cry.

The digital version excites me, though.  Used to be that with the UK small press and self-publishing physical copies, my work would travel only so far, but now I can disappoint people all over the world.

5. We’ve talked about where Babble came from, and where you came from. I think it might be interesting to ask you how you’ve found the process of trying to shift a copy or twelve of the book. You’ve run a Twitter campaign, done a fair few interviews, and enjoyed more than just a few good reviews up too. What’s this part of the job been like? How have you taken to the questions being asked and the opinions being expressed?

Bryan: Yes, people have been mostly complimentary, so it has been a matter of figuratively shuffling my feet and saying "thank you" really quietly, like I do with compliments in real life.  I'm a working class Irish Catholic so compliments confuse me and I subconsciously try not to engage with them because I think it's some kind of trick, but there's been the odd duff comment and I'm on much firmer ground there, though even then it's stuff like "an American football field doesn't look like that" which isn't as bad as "I cannot tell what is supposed to be going on", which would have been my main worry about reading in a review.  As an artist, I'm happiest being invisible, because it means the art has done its job and not distracted from the story - if it's not great, that's perfectly okay with me, but if people can't tell what's going on I consider that disastrous.

Lee takes care of the day-to-day whoring but I'm a bit lost with that - I occasionally remember to mention it on Twitter, but Lee is a whoring machine like one of those sex robots that made up seventy percent of the female cast of Battlestar Galactica and I'm mostly redundant at this stage.  The interviews are an interesting experience, but I don't have much to offer as it's really Lee's story, so I mostly just try to sound interesting and not make a hole of myself.

Lee: The reviews have been, for me, anyway, surprising.

It’s one of those things where you’re really working on this thing in a bubble, unsure of what people are going to think of it, but secretly hoping that people will flip and throw money at you for a copy and make you a millionaire. But you’re also painfully aware that it could well flop spectacularly and every dream and hope you have will be crushed. And then, it goes out there, and people actually like this thing. You begin to see positive review after positive review and it’s surprising, flattering and a little bit humbling. Well, until it all goes to my head and I start demanding gold plated Winnebago’s full of puppies for signings, anyway.

I’m grateful for the reviews, both good and bad, though. The main thing with small press comics is the lack of visible reviews, and, if I’m being blunt, the fact that not all small press people take them well, which, in turn puts people off reviewing small press comics. It’s a shame, really, because there’s some genuinely brilliant comics being produced in the scene by some hugely talented, and outright lovely and supportive, people that don’t get the exposure they deserve because the odd person takes exception to someone pointing out they’re not the next Alan Moore.

To get back on the point, it’s kind of cool to see some constructive reviews of Babble coming in. The scale of it, though, the sheer amount of reviews we’ve picked up, has pretty amazing, and the fact that they’ve been largely positive is really overwhelming. Although, I’ll admit, I’m still a little nervous about what you’ll say about it, Colin…

As for the interviews etc… I have to admit, I wasn’t too comfortable when I realised I was going to have to do it (I’ve never really been comfortable talking about myself or writing in pretty much any context), but it’s proved to be a bit of a challenge, seeing as I’ve had to try and rack my brains and remember stuff from three or four years ago to answer questions and try to make them still sound relevant. In some ways, the whole PR thing’s been really cathartic, too; the chance to spout endlessly about the book and just get it out of my head has been great – it’s like everything to do with Babble is going out into the world now, and the decks are being cleared, ready to start something new. Or that’s how it feels to me, anyway.

On the other hand, though, we’ve had to compete in the PR stakes against things like Before Watchmen and the uproar surrounding Amazing Spider-Man #700, which just consumed every comic news site and blog around, and pretty much drowned every other piece of PR that was trying to get seen. I know it’s just business and The Big Two have comics to sell, but its still pretty disheartening to watch them dominate the market place, especially when you’ve got a small stake in it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the coverage we’ve managed to get, and I’m grateful you’ve taken the time out to talk to us about this, but seeing how Marvel and DC just seem to dominate everything really does make you realise you’re a minnow swimming alongside leviathans.


6. Finally, where now? What are you up to, what are your ambitions, how much are you looking forward to whatever’s coming?

Lee: Good question… Right now, I’ve got some more small press stuff to wrap up, including more for Zarjaz and FutureQuake and the final Accent UK anthology, Victoriana (due later this year), and there’s some talk of resurrecting an old project to pitch, but that’s still in the very early stages. After that… I don’t know. I mean, I know what I’d like to do next – some more books, hopefully with Image or Oni Press or Self Made Hero – but whether any of that will come to pass, I don’t know. Given the fickle nature of the comic world, and the creative world in general, it’s pretty hard to lay out a grand five year plan when you’re not even sure how the landscape’s going to look six months from now – I mean, this time last month, Titan Comics didn’t exist, and it’s already looking like a serious player in the UK scene (and definitely something I think I’ll be investigating further). But, in another interview, I said I’d love to write John Constantine, and then, a couple of days later, DC announced they were cancelling Hellblazer, so I really don’t want to tempt fate by saying I’d love to write Judge Dredd some day (which I would – although, if Dredd’s killed off next week, please don’t blame me!).

I guess I’m looking ahead with a cautious eye, really. Bryan and I are looking at a new project as a follow up, but we’re not quite ready to pitch it to publishers just yet. Hopefully, with Babble under our belts, we can maybe get our foot in the door and avoid some of the pitfalls of the last time.

Bryan:  It's probably bad form to say "I have nothing planned for the future" but my pc finally gave up the ghost before Christmas and went tits-up, so I am forced into a brief hiatus for a month or two while I replace it, but then it's back to the grindstone because I'm never not working on something, which has been the case for the last couple of years.  Even now when I have all my work up to date and delivered and proofed to the point that mere weeks ago I was drawing free comics for the internet and in theory have absolutely nothing to be getting on with, I have several things I have to be getting on with, like the next episode of Rathbone for Paul Scott's Omnivistascope (the closest thing the UK has to both Eurocomics and 'hard' sci-fi), a cover for the collected edition of the Rathbone stories illustrated by myself and Dunk Nimmo, and some short stories here and there for the small press as well as a couple of other things I shan't jinx by mentioning this early, but will hopefully represent some new ground for me.

I am looking forward to saying "I am a comic artist" if anyone asks, though.  Until pretty recently I've worked only in the construction industry since leaving school, so I'm slightly proud of the fact that I can now stop saying I do something robust and palpable for a living like laying bricks, demolition or glazing and instead say that I sit at a computer and draw bears.

 Thanks again to Lee and Bryan!



  1. "Incendiary"? Sirrah, I will have you know I do my very best to only speak aloud the consensus of the room - it's hardly my fault that in internet comics circles, death threats are how we say hello now.

    You are very generous with your time and the blog, Colin, so thank you again for helping a couple of lads get their wares under some noses.

    1. Hello Mr B:- It was a pleasure, and it didn't feel like generosity at all.

      And of COURSE I rely on you expressing the truth not only of the room, but of the TRUTH! It's an inevitably incendiary biz ... :)

  2. Enlightening to read about the path from small press work and submissions to what looks like a nicely polished large-scale work. Interview reaffirms that there are no short cuts, just hours and hours of putting the work in. Good luck to them.

    The single colour tonal work looks very effective.

    1. Hello Alfie:- "Interview reaffirms that there are no short cuts, just hours and hours of putting the work in."

      I'm not sure in our culture that we're good in recognising the ratio of work invested to achievement generated in our culture. In the X-Factor times, success of whatever kind often appears to be about entitlement and luck. But as you say, there's those "hours and hours" that seperate ideas from end-product, and knowing that makes the work all the more enjoyable and admirable, I think.

      So, the best of luck to everyone who's willing to put that work in!

  3. As someone who always enjoys Brigonos' comments here on your blog, I'd like to wish him and his co-creator the best of luck with the book, and hope that it will help open a few doors for them.

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention Colin. I reckon I'm going to get it on Comixology.

    1. Hello Figserello:- I always enjoy the comments - yours very much included too, of course - far more than the posts. And Brigonos'does seem unable to put together a sentence that isn't entertaining ....

      I wonder how it reads on Comixology. I tend to take the panel-to-panel option there. I suspect the tale will fly by ...