When I started to pair up writers and artists for Dawn of the Unread there were some that I thought would be perfect marriages and others with the potential to blossom into loving long-term relationships. One relationship that I thought would be a marriage made in heaven was that of Al Needham and Rikki Marr (the video above was filmed months before they started work). There was an obvious rationale to this: both had worked together numerous times on LeftLion, when Al had been the esteemed editor. But, it turned out to be one of the most difficult partnerships of all and felt like I’d gone 12 rounds with Froch. There are numerous reasons for this and I hope that they don’t mind me sharing this on the blog as their end result was outstanding. It was just a very difficult process getting there.
Firstly, Rikki suffered a very close family bereavement which absolutely knocked the stuffing out of him. He stopped answering emails and phone calls and completely went off the radar. It didn’t help matters that I was unaware of what had happened and so my terse emails didn’t help matters. When I finally discovered what had happened I was able to change tact and insisted on meeting him face to face so that I could gauge his mental state. As much as I was desperate for him to be in Dawn of the Unread I didn’t want him to feel under any additional pressure. This also meant searching out and drafting in a possible replacement if he wasn’t up for it. Needless to say this was equally difficult as I was basically asking another artist to be on back-up to create artwork at very short notice and put other commitments on hold.
Both Al and I have lost a parent in the last year and so when we were all able to finally get together it was a bit of self-therapy session, though knowing how someone feels is never consolation for loss itself. Al Needham absolutely adores his family. It is virtually impossible for him to go one sentence without injecting ‘me mam’ or ‘me dad’ into a conversation, and talks about his parents with a passion I’ve never witnessed before. So, perhaps our combined personal circumstances, and the fact that we’ve all known each other for quite a while, did go some way to repairing those gaping emotional wounds.
Prior to our meeting, communication had been via sporadic text messages, something which is completely unacceptable for a project with this level of complexity. This meant that Rikki was working on drafts of panels without editorial input and so the narrative was getting lost and replaced, instead, by beautiful, but ultimately pointless, artwork. Al Needham is the best writer in Nottingham, bar none, and to lose his voice in a story would be unforgivable on my part.
Another difficulty was that neither have written for a comic before. Their previous collaborations had generally been front covers or illustrations for LeftLion. In this instance – when the artist starts to ignore briefs and gets all creative – you can pretty much tweak the text or emphasis to fit the drawing. You can’t with a comic.
Rikki, bless him, was knocking out drawings and sketches as and when he felt emotionally up to it, hoping that they would somehow fit in. They didn’t. Consequently, lots of drawings had to be cut back to create space for text which was frustrating for him after all the effort he had put in. Telling someone they are wasting their time when they aren’t up for drawing in the first place, doesn’t go down too well.
Al and I got a taxi over to Rikki’s and sat down and went through panel by panel. My role was mediator, and although things got a little heated at times as the changes were slowly, and it has to be said, begrudgingly, introduced, a very beautiful, witty comic started to emerge.
Rikki’s particular style is that of a ‘live artist’ which means he likes to draw from the gut and go with rough sketches, rather than polished perfect drawings. Al is completely and utterly anal about detail: this is a man who buys a ‘leaves blower’ when he is skint because he can’t stand the mess of autumn on his driveway. Consequently, there were inconsistencies around Rikki’s drawings of Carl Froch and Bendigo that demanded he go back and redraw minute details, such as Froch’s nose. This was the last thing he wanted to do when he wasn’t particularly up for drawing. To compound matters, it went against the integrity of his style. But in a comic consistency is imperative as it signposts the reader, albeit mostly on a subliminal level.
It’s worth noting here that Rikki has a lucrative career as a live artist and is regularly flown out abroad for corporate meetings where he sketches boardroom debates and visualises issues. So we were asking him to do something that more or less went against the ethos of his style and the very reason we had selected him as an artist.
But my God, isn’t the end result beautiful? Every page is drawn differently yet it has the consistency of character to be recognisable from the rough sketches to the 3-D effects. And Al Needham’s voice comes bellowing out of the page, so that you’re absolutely drenched in spittle.
I think they have created an absolute masterpiece and I do hope that as time passes they are able to work on a longer version of the story as they have absolute gold on their hands. Part of my incentive for commissioning writers and artists who had not worked together in this medium before was the hope that it would lead to future projects. Bendigo must not be left to rot as a footnote in a larger story and I urge readers of this blog to let these two know that you, dear readers, demand more.