Introducing Edith Slitwell

For nearly a year now I’ve been putting together the mechanics of Dawn of the Unread. Thinking through the process, putting together the right editorial team, selecting writers, researching literary figures, building partnerships, and reading a ridiculous amount of graphic novels to immerse myself in what is essentially an unfamiliar medium. This weekend the fun started. I wrote the introduction.

We decided to bring back to life an archaic librarian as our host, drawing on 1950s style horror comics. This was partly to prod at people’s pre-conceptions of what a comic is and to mess with their expectations. I spent Friday night watching the opening two minutes of all 92 episodes of Tales From the Crypt for inspiration, which was originally aired from 1989 – 1996, and conveniently uploaded to Youtube.

Edith Sitwell

Edith Sitwell

The Crypt Keeper introduces each episode and is a master of ghoulish alliteration. In homage to this my librarian figure is called Edith Slitwell and is inspired by the eccentric poet Edith Sitwell. I chose Sitwell because 2014 is the 50th anniversary of her death and for more pragmatic reasons, she has a magnificent face that lends itself to illustration. So distinctive are her angular features that when her father commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint a family portrait he requested that the artist smooth out her crooked nose. Sargent did as instructed but took revenge by adding a crook to his nose.

"Can't get enough of your nails baby"

“Can’t get enough of your nails baby”

I also want Edith to have long nails like Glodean White (Barry’s missus), that curl all over the page. Librarians are often portrayed as meek and I really liked the idea of a slightly embittered woman who wasn’t happy with what has happened to her profession.

The purpose of the introduction is to explain why the Unread have come back to life but it was also an opportunity to say hello to some of the literary figures that haven’t made it into the book. These include William Booth, Graham Greene and J M Barrie. I’d originally included Charles Dickens (who visited Nottingham four times) as well as Music Hall star Billy Merson, but I had to drop these two in the end.

The initial feedback on my first draft from Adrian Reynolds, our script editor, was brutal but perfect: stop trying to be a smart arse.

“Think less in terms of journo-style info-rich content and more in terms of a dramatic narrative. The political and satirical element is fine, but at the moment is weakened by the sheer density of references, many of which will be lost on the intended audience. And given that this is the intro to the whole, we want them to feel excited about reading more, not baffled by something that’s presenting as a comic but sounds like Radio 4 in disguise.”

With journalism and fiction I’ve always had relative freedom to say what I like. There’s always space to edit and perfect a point or slip in another paragraph. A comic is a different kind of beast altogether. It works on a smaller scale. You have to think about the relationship of each panel on the page. When you start to think of content in terms of a single page or a double page, the narrative instantly becomes more focussed.

Cartoon panels

Draft one. Coffee not compulsory.

I think it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write as you can’t just interject a new idea or point without having to go back and change everything. It’s incredibly frustrating and requires discipline, as well as a lot of coffee. Breaking content down into units in turn helps develop suspense and clarity. After doing this I’ve certainly gained a greater appreciation of other forms of expression, such as poetry where every word counts.

Another thing that helped with the second draft was drawing out the panels so that I could better visualise the role of the artist in the narrative. When you see a small square panel (1/6) you realise you can’t cram too much in and so question what exactly it is you need to convey and how. This was how I got my initial draft of 70 panels down to 40. Next stop, the artist.

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