Adrian Reynolds, the writer of Little Boxes (our current chapter), talks to his childhood hero Hunt Emerson, the artist and writer for Chapter 7: D H Lawrence (released 8 September 2014)
Without cartoonist Hunt Emerson, Dawn of the Unread might not exist in quite the form it does. It was his work I was introduced to in the seventies when my dad brought home some of the comics that Hunt was producing in what was then termed the Print Lab of Aston University. I’d seen comics before, but I never quite clicked with most British humour comics, and war comics didn’t do it for me either.
Something about Hunt’s work clicked with me though. The titles for a start – who wouldn’t want to read a publication called Large Cow Comix? They were clearly the work of an interestingly deranged mind that even in their lettering – Hunt used to put a dot in the middle of a letter O – suggested something off-kilter going on. And then there were the elastic figures who populated the surreal landscapes of his drawings, where background details shift from one panel to the next.
I was captivated, and that glimpse of what comics could be like primed me to actively seek out further examples of what people could do when they put images and words together, from 2000AD to Marvel, DC, and a pretty broad spectrum of indie creators. In time that introduced me to some of Hunt’s influences – Herriman’s Krazy Kat and the American underground scene.
All of which made it inevitable, when I was asked to get involved in Dawn of the Unread, choosing artists and working with them and writers to ensure their stories work, that I’d approach Hunt Emerson to contribute. He said yes, and is working on a piece about D.H. Lawrence for us, a kind of follow-up to his acclaimed take on Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Hunt’s berserk adaptations of literary works, from Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Dante’s Inferno, are acclaimed. And they’re just part of a career that also includes stints on Radio Times and The Beano. But it all starts off back in the seventies, with the Arts Lab scene that also gave rise to Alan Moore…
What role did Arts Labs play in what you were doing then? What were Arts Labs, and what distinguishes them from what you’ve seen since?
In 1967 Jim Haynes, David Bowie and others started an experimental arts workshop in London they called the Arts Lab. Soon, Arts Labs appeared in other cities, including Birmingham. They mostly lasted for about a year before closing, but the Birmingham one hung on, and became a fixture of the city from 1968-1982. It was, at first, in a former gym and youth centre in the Newtown area, and it had the world’s most uncomfortable cinema (3rd hand cinema seating, no heating) showing art films – Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, “foreign” films, etc. There was also theatre studio space, experimental music workshops, painting studios, a dance troupe, poetry readings, and so on. The building was dilapidated and chaotic, the place was forever on the verge of collapse, and it was just great!
I was involved there from early in my time in Birmingham – from about 1973, when I was part of the experimental music workshop. The Lab had a silkscreen workshop printing posters, and a small offset litho press for film and theatre notes, flyers, etc. I wangled myself a job there in about 1975, operating the press – though I soon moved on to darkroom work, design and layout. We got a larger, A3 press, and inevitably I started printing and publishing underground comics there, with a group of friends (none of whom, incidentally, were comics artists). We published a number of titles under the banner of Ar:zak, the arts Lab Press, titles including Street Comix, Committed Comix, David Noon’s Moon Comix, and Heroine (Britain’s first wimmins’ comic), and we featured artists such as Steve Bell, Bryan Talbot, Kevin O’Neill, Mike Matthews, Chris Welch, Suzy Varty and Graham Manley. We never sold more than a thousand or so of any title, though some of our print runs were 10,000!
The Arts Lab moved to a site on Aston University’s campus, and struggled on until around 1990 until it finally closed. I left the place in 1980 to go freelance. My time there was the most fun I’ve ever had at work, though it was also very frustrating and poverty stricken! We learned to improvise and make do with depleted resources, to not be “precious” about work, art and comics, and to develop a healthy anti-establishment attitude. We didn’t learn any business sense.
Did you have much sense of the American underground scene when you were starting out, or did your work evolve independently?
The American underground comics were what started me on comics in the first place. I’d read the Beano etc as a child, and also been profoundly influenced by early MAD comics, but it wasn’t until I saw work by Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, and their contemporaries, when I was in my early 20s, that I got the idea that this was the path I wanted to follow. My own work was influenced by them and by the British kids comics, and then later, as I learned about comics history, by such as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and by European comics.
How did the idea of doing literary adaptations crop up? Are you planning any more?
My first literary adaptation was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, produced with Knockabout Comics after they had fought and won an expensive and resource-devouring censorship prosecution. We wanted to celebrate our win, and coincidentally, Lady C came out of copyright at the right time, so we made an irreverent lampoon of D.H. Lawrence’s book. It was, for us, successful, so we went on to do the same to Casanova (not so successful) and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (still selling). Most recently, we’ve published my take on Dante’s Inferno. I’ve taken to the form, and I’ve worked on comics adaptations of the literature of John Ruskin, Edward Lear, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Keats, Robert W. Service, Lewis Carroll, and others that I can’t remember now. I am currently working on a longer term project that will be a history of Handsworth, the district of Birmingham where I live – which will involve local young people and new artists as well as myself and other professionals.
You’ll be revisiting Lawrence for Dawn of the Unread. What’s your process like for developing a new story?
These days it’s all about the deadline I’m afraid. I like writing my own stories, but I’m not consistent enough to write to order, regularly. So I work in collaboration with writers these days most of the time. Tym Manley has written Firkin the Cat for Fiesta since it started in 1980, and the Beano send scripts by different writers; currently Stu Munro is scripting Little Plum. I’ve worked a lot with Kevin Jackson over the past five or six years, firstly on comics about John Ruskin, then on Dante’s Inferno (where I wrote it, based on Kevin’s notes and advice), and currently on Phenomenomix for Fortean Times. For this latter, we are gradually producing a series of pages on “Great Occultists”, with the idea that there will eventually be a book. It’s Kevin who will be writing the D.H. Lawrence strip for Dawn of the Unread.
I still write Phenomenomix pages from time to time – I’ve written most of them for the strip’s lifetime – and I occasionally write other stories. I’m currently writing a Calculus Cat 7-page story, which will be for the volume I’m hoping to fund through Kickstarter. That strip – the Calculus Cat – is giving me the most fun. Writing a story like that is actually the best part of doing a comic. After it’s written, the rest is just work.
If I’m writing, it has to be done in silence, usually at night, at my desk staring at a sheet of paper. Ideas come, get scribbled down, changed and reworked, and I’m still making changes to dialogue and phrasing as I’m lettering the artwork pages. I don’t tend to do thumbnail sketches as I know what the visual part is like as I’m writing. I do some very rough frame layouts – figuring out which frames go where on a page – on a scrap of paper, then go straight to the drawing boards. I letter the pages, then pencil the pages, usually very loosely – sometimes the pencil work is barely visible – and then I ink straight on top of the pencils. For illustration work I do more preparation, and use a lightbox, but my comics pages are quite spontaneous.
I’m going to visit Kevin Jackson today to discuss the Lawrence strip. We’ll toss ideas around and talk about a general structure – Kevin is very knowledgeable about practically everything. Then he’ll write a script which will have too many words in, and I’ll take it apart, re-edit it without changing much, and basically turn it into a comic.
You’re doing some work in schools now. How did that come about, and what are you getting from it other than another source of freelance income? What’s the biggest surprise you’ve experienced working with children?
Most of us find ourselves doing workshops at one time or another, mainly to earn more money, but also because comics and cartoons are hugely popular with children, and they can learn a lot from manipulating images and materials to tell stories. It’s exhausting and keeps you on your toes, it’s absorbing and stimulating, and it’s usually great fun! Biggest surprise? I think that is the rapport I build up with students. I’m never entirely convinced by my own abilities and talents as a teacher, though to be fair, as I get more experience I seem to be a good teacher. I’m very patient, and that helps. Children seem to respond well to my attempts, and they are always surprising and FUNNY – especially the younger ones.
What is it like doing a Kickstarter to put your work out there, and is it something you’d do again?
Kickstarter seems like, and is, a great idea, but boy! It involves a lot of work and organisation! My campaign for reprinting my Calculus Cat book hasn’t run its course yet, but assuming we make the goal of £10,000, then it will enable us to put another book in the shops and to make some nice collectable artefacts and a deluxe hardback edition of the book (which will be exclusive to Kickstarter Pledgers). Your readers can help with the campaign by visiting this link
Tell us more about Calculus Cat.
Calculus Cat is a character I invented while talking on the phone and doodling. I drew a series of comics about him which were collected by Knockabout in an album in 1987, which has been out of print for years. Calculus Cat was always popular, and I’ve been asked many times – begged, even – to revive him. So I’m planning to reprint the book, with the addition of about 20 new pages. That’s what the Kickstarter campaign is about. The book, for Kickstarter pledgers, will be in a deluxe hardback format, and there will be a standard paperback version for general sale. As well as the new pages, I’ve also persuaded a whole bunch of other cartoonists to draw a Gallery of Calculus cat pictures, and I’ll be producing a t-shirt, badges, guitar plectrums (plectra?), and limited edition prints – all assuming we can make the £10,000 goal we’ve set ourselves on Kickstarter. So, I’d urge anyone and everyone to get into it, make a pledge, and get the deluxe edition of this daft book.
Calculus Cat spends his days running around with the Grin on his face, dodging rubbish and abuse hurled at him by the public. When he comes home at night all he wants is to slump in front of the telly and watch his favourite shows – mostly 1960s westerns, cop shows and cartoons. But the TV also has a job to do, advertising Skweeky Weets at him. They argue and bicker, the night is filled with cartoon violence, and Calculus has to drag on his Grin in the morning and haul himself out again to confront his hostile public. That is basically what the comics are about. They make me laugh; I hope others find the same amusement in them. If I can make my readers laugh then that is the greatest compliment there can be for a cartoonist.
- Hunt Emerson interview Birmingham Arts Lab (iam.peteashton.com)
- Fund this Redux: Calculus Cat (forbiddenplanet.co.uk)
- Hunt Emerson Collection on the iPad (lewstringer.blogspot.co.uk)
- Review: Dante’s Inferno (downthetubescomics.blogspot.co.uk)
- Hunt Emerson Goes Mad (panelnine.com)
- Bring Back Calcus Cat (blogs.birminghammail.co.uk)
- Books and Comics (bookscomics.blogspot.co.uk)