by Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor
Scarlett Hart is the orphaned daughter of two renowned monster hunters, and she is determined to carry on in their footsteps.
In Scarlett’s world the Barguest skulks in the disused mineshaft, sea monsters lurk below the harbour walls, the theatres are teeming with mummified revenants and the Cathedral is terrorised by a ghostly Bishop and his screaming gargoyles. Someone needs to get a control of the city, and Scarlett is determined to be the one to do it. She is the last in a long line of professional monster hunters, and is intent on carrying on in her parents’ footsteps, even if The Royal Academy for the Pursuit and Eradication of Zoological Eccentricities says she’s too young to fight these horrors. With the help of her family’s loyal and long-serving butler, Napoleon, a car called Dorothy and a lot of fabulously steam-punk gadgets, she on the hunt! With her parent’s arch-rival, Count Stankovic, ratting her out to T.R.A.P.E.Z.E. and taking all the monster-catching rewards for himself, it is getting hard for Scarlett to do what she was born to do. But when more monsters start mysteriously manifesting than ever before, Scarlett knows she has to get to the bottom of it and save the city . . . whatever the danger!
In this supernatural adventure for mid-grade readers, author Marcus Sedgwick and illustrator Thomas Taylor have teamed up to create a fast-paced and fiercely imaginative bande dessinée filled with pleasing terror and gorgeous colours. We sent bookseller and folkloric monster enthusiast, Tamsin Rosewell to interview the book’s creators – here’s their conversation:
Tamsin: Firstly, of course, I want to talk about monsters! As an historian I’m very aware that many monsters are a construct of their time – Frankenstein’s monster was born largely out of the fear and fascination with new science, questioning of the relationship between God and humans, and the emerging philosophy about human responsibility; and many of our monsters today, the cybermen and Terminators, have evolved from our complex relationship with technology. Tell me about your monsters – where have they come from and what are they after?
Marcus: Our monsters (and I love that you use the possessive pronoun in your question) come from a particular mood and place. As you say, all monsters are a product of their time, hence (ADVERT ALERT!) the title of my next solo book: The Monsters We Deserve. In Scarlett’s case, Thomas and I had the idea to make a kind of Gothic Tintin. That was the starting place, and we wanted it to have the same tone as Hergé’s work. But in looking for a source for our monsters to spring from, for me there was no choice. I had always wanted to make something somewhat Lovecraftian (though obviously less bombastic in our case!) – I have always loved the New England that he created – the world of the Miskatonic, and I love the landscape of the real New England, Rhode Island and so on. But also I have always felt that strong connection to Old England. The place names/folklore/folksongs of both places are like twins separated at birth, which is only natural when you come to think about how the modern world of the US came to be. So I wanted to draw on both those sources, and the world of Scarlett Hart is at the same time both, and neither, of these two versions of ‘England.’
Thomas: I wanted to root the monsters in the real animal kingdom, and relished the fur, the scales, the spines and the fangs of this book. There’s also something both compelling and disturbing about tentacles, that makes them fun to draw, though not necessarily fun to think about. I hope the reader will feel the same way. For the zombies and animated stone effigies I had to look for a more supernatural basis, but I hope you can smell the sulphur of the gargoyles, and hear the scrape of limestone when they awake. For the zombies, maybe just hold your nose…
HP Lovecraft achieved posthumous fame through his now hugely influential works of horror fiction, although the range of writing he left was very broad. His correspondence and travel writing is little talked about today, but comprises over 100,000 letters and essays that extend from scientific knowledge of astronomy and the natural world to literary philosophy and descriptions of the Atlantic Seaboard. Like Poe, he considered himself to be primarily a poet, but was virtually unknown and published only in pulp magazines before he died in poverty. He is now regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors in the horror genre. His influence spans many aspects of our culture now, from comics and art to film, music and gaming. Lovecraftian horror is a subgenre of horror fiction, both in literature and in film, that emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown (and in some cases, unknowable) more than gore or other elements of shock, though these may still be present.
Tamsin: May I ask about time – the adventure seems to be set both now and in the past. We have both superhero technology, and yet also Dickensian street scenes. When you are setting a piece in an imaginary time-setting can you be freely creative, or are you still working within a convention of comic-creation?
Marcus: This moves on from the previous question. In all writing, you need to find a tone that works, and almost always it needs to be a consistent tone. Things that lurch from one mood to another tend not to work. Think of Tarantino’s From Dusk To Dawn. For me, it just doesn’t work to have people thinking they’re watching a gang/heist movie and then it turn into a vampire/horror piece. One of the things I love about writing is the freedom, and it’s very dispiriting when people don’t want to see experimentation and freedom. The adult British book world is suffering from this, in my opinion. Graphic novels, bandes dessinées, are not. But even when you are being free, you need to work within a confident and consistent framework of your creation, in order not to throw people too much.
Tamsin: I wanted to ask about location too – there is a strong sense of literary England here: the demons in the Cathedral, the hell hound in the disused mine-shaft, the green children on the pub sign and so on. And the monsters too are old Western folkloric creatures: sea-monsters, revenants, black shuck, ghostly clergy and all their friends. There are no African Djiin, Eastern Yokai or Mexican Coco for example. Do you think, even though we are now very mixed and multicultural nations, that our monsters tend to be happiest in their native landscape?
Thomas: The monsters are certainly all from one cultural tradition, and I would love to shake this up a bit if ever a second Scarlett Hart book happens. However, as Marcus said earlier, there is more than enough richness in the seam we are mining here to build a world for Scarlett Hart.
Marcus: Again this comes back to both my first two answers. In drawing on Old and New England, with legends like Green Children, Black Shuck etc, I was working within a delightful source world, and free, as I said before, to mix and merge what elements worked. I could have thrown in roc, or Djinn, or Tokoloshe etc, but it would have been at the risk of breaking that consistency I was talking about before. Tolkein’s world works because he realised that while he could draw on world mythologies to populate the peoples of Middle Earth, he kept them distinct and separate – Norse myth informing the world of ‘Men’, Gaelic/Celtic informing The Elvish world, and so on.
Tamsin: I want to ask you about how you worked together to create a story in comic form. I talk to loads of writers and illustrators, and I hear all sorts of ways that they plan their work; but I don’t know how writers and illustrators work together to create bandes dessinée, which is a very different literary form from what England would call an illustrated book. Did you plan the story as you might plan a screenplay for example?
Thomas: Marcus sent me a screenplay, essentially. Until that point we had chatted over themes, characters and setting, and are co-creators in that sense, but once the writing/sketching began, we shifted into our own domains. But there was plenty of to and fro via e-mail and phone throughout.
Marcus: Yes, we worked to a screenplay format. We didn’t actually meet up that much. Once or twice in the initial stages. One long day in London once Thomas had the sketches, and so on. And of course we were working with a publisher in New York.
Tamsin: Of course I loved the monsters, but the single thing I enjoyed most about the book was the colour palate; all those gorgeous berry shades and autumn golds – and the lovely crimson and teal-blue monsters. There are many brilliant illustrators working today, but very few are truly great colourists; and I loved the colours in this. But it is a much more disturbing and far more subtle palate than I’ve seen in any other mid-grade bande dessinée. Talk to me about the colours of Scarlett’s world.
Marcus: I shall defer to Thomas on this, though I do want to say that this was one of the reasons that I really wanted to work with Thomas. He is a very rare example of an illustrator who combines elegance, force and wit. Part of this is his excellent colour choices and I agree that the palette in Scarlett is delicious. Over to you, T!
Thomas: Thanks Marcus. I fussed a lot over the colours. I had a horror of producing something ‘bubblebummy’, especially since most of my illustration work has been in picture books for young children. I wanted to capture, for Scarlett Hart, a sense of the past, and I even considered using sepia tones for the whole thing, with just a few colour highlights. Of course, using digital media to add the colour (the line is old fashioned pen and ink) meant I could fiddle and adjust the colour palette endlessly. Being my own colourist was a challenge I underestimated going into this project, and I now understand fully why this aspect of comic creation is often handed to a specialist. Overall I think I was successful colour-wise, despite a few scenes that are perhaps overly dark. I’ve certainly learnt a great deal that will stand me in good stead for future projects. And several people have said they’d like to have tones of paint made up using the book as a swatch, which I take as a great compliment!
Tamsin: Tell me about the publisher. I don’t know much about them; are they an imprint of PanMacmillan or is Macmillan the distributor? Why was it published in New York and not here? Will it be easily available in the UK, for our native monster-lovers?
Marcus: We were in discussion with Walker Books in the UK. I had worked with them before. But we were also in discussion with First Second, who are a newish imprint (though ten years old now!) of Macmillan Kids Books, US. Macmillan have been my US publisher for some time and I had been chatting to the boss at :01, Mark Siegel, who is himself an amazing illustrator. In the end it came down to the size of the markets. Walker would not have been able to afford to make a book of 192 pages in full colour, and :01 could. And as you’ve said, the colour of Thomas’ work is so good, we had to go that route.
Thomas: There is a UK distributor (Melia), so the book is easily available here for bookshops to order for stock or customers through Bertram’s and Gardner’s. But it is a shame there are still many barriers between book markets. English is an international language, after all! And pictures are universal.
Tamsin: Can you tell me a few of the ways that you can play with pace and tension in bandes dessinées? I noticed for example that the opening sequence is free from any dialogue – it just has sound effects. And also that when the monsters are released from the cathedral we cut to a full image spread across the two centre pages. I’m not a writer but I can imagine how an author can guide the tension in a story with words, but how does it work in bandes dessinée?
Thomas: From my perspective, as the illustrator, there were moments when all I wanted from Marcus were stage directions. And sometimes it’s easier to draw a scene, and then add dialogue in retrospect. There were certainly a few moments when I emailed Marcus to say ‘now I’ve drawn this, I think we need something more said here,’ or ‘please may I add a few grunts/gasps/exclamations there’. At a more macro level the pacing has to be set by the writer of course, though I think if I’d had more time, I could easily have added another hundred pages of Scarlett wordlessly leaping around or roaring about the skies in her rocket plane. It’s that kind of book.
Marcus: This was the second graphic novel I wrote. The first one you very kindly supported too, Dark Satanic Mills, that I co-wrote with my brother Julian. I learned a lot during that process, and one of those things is how pacing works across spreads, visually. Each spread offers the chance for a ‘reveal’ and you work with that a lot. It means that writing a bande dessinée is quite technical, rather similar to writing a screenplay again. To give one very simple example, if you’re writing a novel, and you want to add 10,000 words, no one is really going to mind. If you did the equivalent to a comic book, (or a film) you’ve just added 50 pages (minutes) and blown the production budget.
Tamsin: Who else was involved in the book’s creation? Do you have editors and designers the same way that you would with a novel? Are there separate art and text editors for bandes dessinée?
Thomas: The designer, Andrew Arnold, deserves a special mention, not least for his subtle but effective work on the cover. A good designer is the best ally an illustrator can have.
Marcus: Yes, we worked very closely (but by email) with the small and excellent team at First Second. Obviously the text was more my area and then Thomas worked very closely with the design team.
Tamsin: Obviously I have to ask if you think we will get to the point in the UK when bandes dessinée is really appreciated as a powerful storytelling form in its own right? I feel like I’ve been making the same points for a decade. Even The Book Trust and many high profile authors still talk about bandes dessinées in language that implies that they just see them as ‘great for reluctant-reader boys who might not be ready for a real book’. It annoys the hell out of me! What do you think it is that we have to do to change this perception? I feel that we are so far behind almost every other country in the world that it is really extremely embarrassing.
Marcus: Yes, you’re right, and I think it’s a cultural thing. Living in France (as I now do, and as Thomas did for years) you get used to seeing even the smallest bookshop having a large selection of bandes dessinées, aimed not just at younger readers, but at anyone. My French teacher recommended one the other day, there is no question of stigma, or that these are only for kids, or kids who can’t read etc etc. I don’t know what we do to change that except keep on talking about it, and in the end hope there are new generations of readers who don’t carry the same prejudice.
Thomas: I would love to see this change. We seem to have a cultural block in the UK, which prevents ‘The Image’ from gaining the same respect and prestige as the ‘The Word’. This is reinforced whenever a teacher tells a child that the comic they want to read isn’t a real book, or when an illustrated book is reviewed with the visual side considered only as an after thought. Even today it’s common for picture books to be credited in the media as by the author only. In France, by contrast, bandes dessinées receive a great deal more recognition, and are often given a great deal of floor and wall space in bookshops. Visit a branch of FNAC and witness people of all genders, ages and professions lolling about reading comics as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. Which, of course, it is.
Tamsin: What’s next for each of you? Are you allowed to tell me about new work in the pipeline?
Marcus: As I oh-so-subtly hinted at before, I have a new monstery book. The Monsters We Deserve is a short novel about a writer and their uneasy relationship with the novel Frankenstein. It’s based on the idea that what many people think Shelley’s novel is about is not what it is actually about. As you were saying above, our monsters are created by us, after all, so we get what we want, we get what we deserve.
Thomas: With my author hat on, I’ve just signed a three book contract with Walker for my Malamander series. Since the Malamander is a legendary aquatic monster that haunts the creepy old town of Eerie-on-Sea, there is at least some thematic continuation from the world of Scarlett Hart. I will be illustrating the books too, and doing the cover art. I’ll be pretty much entirely consumed by this project for the next few years, but I don’t rule out a second Scarlett Hart book some day
Tamsin: Is there anything else that you wish I’d asked about?
Thomas: Snacks. I consumed a ton of custard creams while creating the art for Scarlett Hart, every single one dipped in strong black coffee. I’m still working them off.
Scarlett Hart Monster Hunter
Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor
Published by First Second