Catch up! Illustrating heroism for the London Museum

Continuing with my, long coming, round up of my illustrated shenanigans before the end of the year, I wanted to end with a little insight into what was arguably my favourite project of 2016.

Since joining forces with my wonderful agent towards the end of last year, I’ve been working on a number of projects within the field of publishing. Jodie (aka, SuperAgent) is a literary agent, so specialises in the field of kid book illustration, which is my unquestionable passion. So that works quite well. The only down side of the scenario, is that everything moves SO SLOWLY! I’m desperate to share all the odds and ends I’ve been up to, but have been totally sworn to secrecy by the lords of the Publishing World.

That was, until Summer this year, when Jodie was thrown a total curveball of a job. The London Museum had been donated a medal by the family of a wonderfully brave member of the bomb disposal unit in the early 1940s. The curators at the LM wanted to display it in a new part of their wartime exhibit in their Docklands site. Along with the medal, the family had letters, photos and journal entries from the man himself, Mr Richard Moore.

In an ongoing attempt to reach out to all ages, the Museum were after a comic illustrator to translate the transcript of the journal into a short, quickly absorbed, illustrated story. The journal was so rich with detail and powerfully human, they feared the full effect of Moore’s experience would be lost if it were to be displayed as text. We all know attention spans are short these days . Furthermore, they wanted it done and dusted within a couple of months! Finally a quickfire job!

Aware of my past flirtings with the comics scene, Jodie sent them my comic portfolio and BAM! Back into the comics fray I did go!

And WHAT a fab experience it was! It was unbelievably humbling to be trusted with a gig like this, not only because it was the first time my comic work has gone pro, but also for the richness of the subject matter!

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It’s always a challenge to take a long piece of writing and edit it down into manageable chunks, LET ALONE when you have to factor in imagery. But then to have the added pressure of capturing the bravery, fear and reality of a REAL man in such extreme situations is a whole other ball game. I’m always moved, grateful and, actually – a touch surprised, when anyone wants my illustrations to represent their work in some manner, but to be trusted with a part of a real person’s history is utterly humbling.

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In the research stages, I drew directly from photographs to get a loose idea of facial structure of the men. Then I could later work from these drawings, developing the faces in my drawing style.

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I started by tackling the words. I knew I wanted Moore himself to narrate and therefore the text in the comic should come directly from the journal. I took the bulk of the narrative and broke it into sections, removing any scenes that didn’t move the story along, while trying to keep in as much detail and life as I could from Moore’s entries. Small, human details were important to maintain the relationships of the disposal unit, but some experiences felt repetitive, especially regarding the number of bombs they units disarmed.

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This was a pretty nerve wracking task. I felt entirely impertinent, erasing anything at all, but the guys at the Museum were supportive and honest. They provided me with as much historical material as they could (they’re very clever, knowledgeable chaps you know)  and after a few meetings, we had the bulk of the narrative sorted.

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I’d wanted to book end the comic with one of Moore’s original letters to the wife of his friend and mentor. Not only does this frame the 6 page story nicely, adding come comfortable closure, but it really emphasises the relationship between the two men – a vital component of the journal.

Once this structure was developed, I started to work out how to split this narrative over the six page limit the Museum had stipulated. This is my favourite part of making comics, because I think the flow of a narrative is the most vital part of telling a story and holding an audience. I changed the structure for the final two pages to highlight the chaos of the events, where previously the artwork had fit within a fairly straightforward grid format.

This is also where I develop any motifs, graphical cues or repeated visual themes that might help in the telling of the story.

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The final artwork is beginning to develop based on my many, many drafts!
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Original sketches from the final spread. I like to draw all over everything then arrange the composition on screen in a digital collage.

 

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Draft of the first page.

Once I’d worked and reworked the storyboard into it’s finished – yet still loose and ugly -state, I could focus on characters, artwork and colours. I like to work with a limited palette, and allow the colours to communicate the mood, adjusting the dominant colour based on the events in the story.

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I drew pages and pages of faces to get the characters right. Taking breaks to draw rabbits. Obviously.

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Interestingly, while I’m an illustrator, the illustration component of a project like this is probably the fastest part. I think visual storytelling is so much more than the image itself.

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Draft prior to real characterisation…

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The final page.

The George Cross exhibition opened in September.

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The photo above my comic is the real Richard Moore receiving the medal. So there’s no leeway on my characterisation!
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The medal sits in a glass display unit in the wall.

There’s a lot of reasons why this project is close to my heart. It’s my first comic to have been written for use in a professional context, it was my first attempt at a biographical piece and it was written on a tight deadline.

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But more than all of these things, it marks a really interesting transition of the nature of learning material. We all have seen the rise in popularity in comics, with small press talent and events rising up to challenge the big guns of Marvel, DC and the like, but for a prolific, historical museum to turn to the graphic novel, really marks a widespread understanding of the communication potential of the format. And I’m proud to have been a teeny, tiny piece of this movement.

The Story of the George Cross is a permanent part of the Museum’s Docklands site. The press release for the opening is here.

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For more of an insight into my working process on the work, check out this wonderful review and interview about the work with the brilliant Broken Frontier comics community site.

And if you do HAPPEN to be in East London with a spare minute or two, do have a look. Richard Moore’s story is a magnificent example of true heroism in times of incomprehensible difficulty. Regardless of my involvement with the project, he deserves a slice of your time. His story puts an awful lot into perspective and I am humbled to have been privy to his words.

All images of The comic Dear Mrs Ryan belong to the Museum of London. All shots behind the scenes are property of Rebecca Bagley.
Photographs taken by Rebecca Bagley, Jodie Hodges and Andy Oliver. Cheers for everything guys.
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The Anatomy of a Piano: A historical dissection

Good news! I have friends!

Yes, after the sorry state of affairs that was being a little lone larry back in December of last year, things looked like they were getting pretty desperate. BUT NOT SO! Disparaging loneliness aside, I couldn’t deny how much I had enjoyed my little flirt with the universe of children’s theatre, and this week, I was offered (yes offered, by real-life friend people!) the chance to step back into the stalls in the Bath Egg for the curiously enigmatic The Anatomy of a Piano.

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My favourite way to approach any piece of dramatic or performance media, is to do so with absolutely no preconceptions. If I can avoid it, I do no research and I enter with the glorious naivety of an open mind, before it can be sullied by any further knowledge or expectation. I think this approach is probably even more poignant for a children’s production. It’s my, uncompromisingly adult, attempt to revisit the limitless possibility of the imagination of a little one; exploring everything for the first time with no prior understanding of what it might or should be.

So, armed with nothing more than the title and the knowledge it had made a solid debut at the Edinburgh fringe, my companions and I settled with absolutely no understanding or expectation.

When I was a boy, I wanted to be a Space man.

 

While a bit of a veteran with children’s media, theatre is very much a new frontier for me. I honestly did not know what to expect, but I certainly think I was surprised by what I found. It was a performance, certainly. A wonderful performance from a remarkably talented pianist (go figure), Will Pickvance. But, as the boundaries between contemporary media continue to merge in increasingly surprising manners, it’s entirely unfair to think of The Anatomy of a Piano as mere recital. However brilliant a recital it may have been.

An educational piece? Yep, it certainly ticked that box, our one man band managed a concise tour through the historical landscape of the piano, from it’s earliest ancestry to more familiar ground, stopping off on the way to acknowledge the fathers of piano musical development as he did so. Accompanying the history were simply scrawled, projected slides and a biological script that introduced the title’s scientific dissection into the mix. A faux lesson in which historical development was explored through the anthropomorphism of the instrument.

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Evolution. You know, in pianos and giraffes.

Unsurprisingly, the score was a sensational accompaniment, bringing each era to life with a rich journey through their musical trends and the key developments brought about by a small number of the most pioneering of composers. In caves.

Obviously.

But no, it wasn’t really a ‘history lesson via recital’ kind of deal either. Pickvance’s curious, autobiographical opening set the conversational tone that escaped the traditional educational shackles too. Confiding in the audience his young disappointment at Father Christmas’s inability to provide a spaceship as requested, Pickvance quickly formed a relationship with his audience, inviting the playful interactivity of audience participation. From counting down his attempted piano take off, to desperately trying to answer questions to the frustratingly teasing responses, The Anatomy of a Piano engaged children with the effortless humor and fun of your favourite, silly uncle.

I don’t like instructions.

But naturally, I couldn’t comment on the engaging, delivery prowess of Pickvance, without giving equal praise to his counterpart. With the guidance of the, self titled instruction manual, Pickvance accessed the piano’s wide range of audible possibility, creating the emotional and dramatic emphasis to the performance. From the building quibbles of the early take off, to an immediately understood representation of ice cream, the piano set every stage of our journey entirely through sound. I found it reminiscent of the televised version of Rayman Brigg’s The Snowman, in which the perfect score does to much of the talking.

But for all the musical talent, for all the engaging history, for all the cleverly devised musical drama, I think what struck me the most, was the entirely played down, simplistic and mature nature of the play.

I reckon it’s a common assumption that in order keep a child’s attention for 55 minutes, there’s a requirement for bright colours, over enthusiastic tones and bouncing presentation. The low budget charm of an empty stage, a man in a jacket and his upright piano seems a thousand miles away from the vibrant, Ceebeebies presentation you may expect.

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Well, that and the piano disco at he end. But you can’t deny the magic of a closing piano disco. Who doesn’t want to go out with a bang?

But surprising or not, the delightfully mature and simple presentation was all that was needed. Admittedly there was a few minutes or so towards the middle when my fellow audience members started getting a little fidgety and I thought that perhaps the simplicity of the show may have run it’s course.

But I was entirely wrong. A little humour, a sing song to flawless music and the perfect touch of just enough ridicule of outdated yet familiar methods of teaching, and the kids were back in the palm of his hand. The littlest loved the silliness, entranced by the cunning, often comical use of piano to develop a sense of place, and their eagerness to participate. The bigger ones identified with observations of boring, forced piano lessons, threatening all the life the show had brought to the instrument and reveled in the off-beat, biological retelling of historical development.

I don’t how to classify The Anatomy of a Piano as anything other than pure performance. It was talent, it was humour, it was fun, it was learning. It was everything it should have been, whether I knew what that was or not.

Curious and simple, it’s a tale of love and talent and has absolutely convinced me that a piano is light years better than a spaceship.