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 Exhibitionist Part Two: Yet another crack at galleries

So I was in the middle of combating my mistrust of art galleries.

I was doing it in the laziest way possible, don’t get me wrong, by only attending events of illustrative relevance, but I was still doing it.

Having spent the early afternoon in a whirlwind tour of the contemporary illustration scene, by way of the AOI World Illustration Awards at Somerset House, I decided to kick it up a notch with an exhibit that cost real life pennies. Commitment ahoy! This big spender headed to the House of Illustration.

Safe bet? Yeah definitely but whatever, I was still paying to look at walls so I consider it a victory.

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So, I am in love with the House of Illustration. Tucked behind the bustle of Kings Cross, if you can fight your way through the Potter-ites to find it, do it. Not only does it have a tiny yet really nice little shop of all things illustration, (I forget I have no use for postcards every time I enter) it also regularly holds events, talks and lectures by some of the industry’s finest. I’ve many a fond memory of various events in those walls held by editorial artists, to kids book creators, comics artists and beyond, all of which have been top quality. It’s genuinely a great place to get yo’self an education in all things drawn so if you’ve not already, do head it up.

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What made this venue a great counterpart to the AOI exhibition, is that the HOI not only champions the contemporary, but regularly pays great homage to the history of illustration. It didn’t let me down on my visit either, where, on paying my affordably £7.00 ticket price, I was treated to a charming, unexpected exhibition of Quentin Blake originals.

I suppose it’s not that surprising, given that this goliath of British children’s illustration IS the founder, but even so the short and sweet collection was a bit of a delight. Seven Kinds of Magic, is a collection of Blake pieces in which he approaches themes of surrealism and magic. In all honesty, Blake’s work doesn’t tickle my fancy on too frequent a basis, but it’s truly impossible to deny the life and charm of his scrawled characters and bonkers scenarios. I also firmly believe that any insight into the workings of a practitioner and acknowledgement of how they approach a given subject is all of great relevance. Especially when they have been rather a large part of your childhood experience of pictures. And especially when they are so joyfully mad.

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On top of this emporium of scribbled musings, another small room housed yet more Blake magic, this time in lieu of the BFG‘s contemporary comeback. Having spent many a sleepless night, terrified I would be consumed by an unfriendly giant (well, what’s any British childhood without a bit of Dahl related trauma?) this did result in a pang of nostalgic excitement. hoi_16

This small collection housed originals from the book, as well as previously unseen images that were cut from the end product. A sneak peek into the production and alternative results of something we’ve all become so familiar with. I’m not the kind of gal who is hugely fussed by the idea of seeing ‘The Original’. For me, if illustrations  were made for a book, those printed pages in their intended context ARE the real versions. Authenticity of ink on a page matters not in my eyes, BUT new images I’ve not seen before? Illustrator interpretations of scenes I was previously left to imagine myself? Well that is something worth taking a peek at.

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And it is a bit of a joy, even on a wall. It’s around until October, so if you were/are/could be a fan of the book, you really should stop in.

BUT, these surprise delights from an illustration wizard were not actually what had drawn me to the HOI that sunny, August afternoon.

Instead an exhibition of Soviet children’s books, the aptly named A New Childhood had caught my interest hook, line and sinker.

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You offer me a chance to compare story, illustration style and subject of historical children’s books to that of the contemporary, I’m there. (#booknerd) You invite me to take a look at the picture books of another culture, particularly those in a time of historical poignancy I’m THERE. You invite me to observe the impact of political unrest on the children’s book market I am ALL OVER THERE. And you appease my love of classic, European and Russian design, casually throw out names like El Lissitzky and charge me less than a tenner? My friend, you got yo’self a date.

It was one of those events that made me sad I wasn’t still in education and having to write a dissertation any time soon. I was mortified the taking of pictures was forbidden, it was a fabulous collection of incredible design work. Stylised illustration in glorious synergy with typography that screamed history.

Given it’s historical relevance, it’s not surprising that the arrangement of the exhibition felt like a classical museum format. The glass topped tables and large, formal information cards gave the collection a treasured, ‘getting cultured’ vibe that took me back to being a kid in a museum. That knowledge that you were, in NO WAY going to EVER be trusted to touch such relics. It’s so strange then, to imagine the pre and post revolution children of Russia, pouring over this very collection I stared at through four inch thick glass, in their beds and with their parents; in the same, slouched manner you see kids on beanbags in Waterstones, sinking into Charlie and Lola with the corners folded in and their imaginations racing.

I understand, and in this case totally appreciated, the serious tone of such a valuable collection being treated with this respect. I liked that I felt I was in a museum. I felt I was being taught. I felt I was really Getting History, but it was so apparent how many millions of miles away from the real world of kids books it was. I wasn’t a reader here, I was an observer.

Yeah okay, the fact I can’t read Russian probably had something to do with that too, I can’t deny it.

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And I learned a lot. Aside from the joy I found in discovering the artistic impact of the curious rules of such a strict regime; the banning of all things folklore, the mistrust of anthropomorphism and the, almost comical differences this appears to have with our contemporary, Western picture book climate, I learned facts. I followed the roots of contemporary illustration, the way style and content spread throughout nations, the impact such poignant work has on my current market. The transition of design. The movement of character. It was a delight to see and compare where things came from, to where they are. And, importantly as always; context. Society changes, and the creative output moves too.

To ban fantasy, to encourage production, function and mechanism and place importance on becoming USEFUL adults, is a far cry from the values explored in plenty of picture books today. Such a no-nonsense regime had to drill function into young minds. I suppose for many, it’s brainwashing. To remove a child’s imaginative capability by way of focusing on the reality. The list of banned, damaging or unsuitable children’s output then, seems so obscure to us now.

But that obscurity to our society, is of course where the lesson lies. Call it brainwashing if you will, but children’s books do shape minds, which, in turn, shape people.

We may not like to consider it brainwashing now, perhaps because the societal scenario is not nearly so extreme, perhaps because one political body is not perceived to be outwardly in charge of the entire output, perhaps, and most importantly, because we don’t disagree with the topics of discussion. Either way, we must always be aware that picture books are significant in shaping thoughts, societal codes and values. All works of fiction, media and art in all  their forms, impact directly on the belief system of a person.

I don’t think this is necessarily negative. This is how cultures are formed. We have to define and express shared values to an extent, in order to co-exist without pandemonium. Without getting too pretentious, children’s books, along with all other entertaining consumables, help to define the core of societies.

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A New Childhood was a brilliant collection of texts spanning across a foreign period of revolution. It, as all museums do, celebrated and examined a point in history, be it within or outside of our cultural code of conduct. It was an extreme reminder that context is everything and to always be aware of the power of judgements communicated in all media; specifically those intended for the young. First impressions, after all, can be hard to renegotiate.

The House of Illustration is a good place for picture loving yet gallery-wary people like me to explore these, white-walled environments. It takes things I love, like illustration; imagery designed for a purpose, for a brief, for a text and displays it out of it’s original context. The intent is to perhaps elevate it to something more cultured than it is? To remove the dirty, money aspect, and witness the creation as an example of higher art?  It’s a mark of true acceptance of commercial artists, once looked down on by the community of higher artists, into the realms of something greater.

I appreciate the notion, because I (obviously) appreciate the illustrator. I think they SHOULD be appreciated. I do think they should get credit for the work they do. Cover artists of novels should have their name on their work, and picture book artists should be acknowledged as co-authors. In my, humble opinion, that is.

Where I think I fall away from the idea of an exhibition space, is that I don’t view it as any more valuable. I don’t like looking at things on a wall or displayed on a grey floor. I still don’t really rate the experience, even after the array of, frankly, phenomenal collections I experienced. I suppose I personally, don’t really feel it does the illustrator that many favours.

I like to see things, not in their original state, not to appreciate solely the mark on the page or the craftmanship of the line (although there’s no doubt it can be sensationally impressive) in a blank environment where all that matters is its existence. I’m more excited by it In situ. I want to see an illustration next to the text it was made for. I want to see the design of the spread as a whole and how that designer has impacted on the illustration. I want to see the results of every stage of production working their respective magic to create the final output. Arguably of course, that’s why it’s important to see the illustration alone, in a case; to truly experience how it’s placement has changed. That’s why I’ll continue to check out places like this, to get a rounded experience of what illustration is, why it is more than simply drawing.

But don’t expect me to be as excited. I still prefer my pictures printed in pages, tangible, touchable, smellable. Interacting with spine and paper stock and text in the musty library, in the messy play room, in the classroom that smells like pencil shavings.

This is my kind of illustration, and my kind of design. I loved my visit to the HOI, it was an enlightening and beautiful museum and I know I’ll return. Thanks for trying to appease my inner gallery lover, but if you need me, I’ll be on the floor, elbows deep in a beanbag.

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