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Panel Breakdown with Tumult's Michael Kennedy

27 January 2020

With the psychological pulp thriller Tumult receiving an Angoulême nomination, artist Michael Kennedy breaks down a key page and shows us how it's done. You can also read how John Harris Dunning wrote Tumult here.   

Which page from Tumult that stood out for you, and for what reason?
There’s so many to choose from. The whole thing was a trial by fire, so there are pages that represent the highs, when I was on form, and pages and scenes that didn’t quite reach their potential. To choose the art that I think nailed the book, and I suppose had me feeling like I’d cracked the puzzle, would be the hell-hound sequence in the midpoint featuring Zoltan, Leila’s childhood defence mechanism personality. John was supportive in all the scenes of the book, but there was a trick or two here that really speak to the nature of collaboration in comics.

How did you develop the page, did John (Harris Dunning, writer) discuss it with you or did he just let you get to work?
Well, the scene was set on Hampstead Heath at night, I had an idea of that based on my earlier visits. Lots of muted out layers trees that make you surprised you’re even in the middle of London. Although I was operating on a minimalist background policy I’d seen enough of the Heath with John to have a feel of that particular landscape.

It was funny at the time as I wasn’t too sure why I had taken 100s of photos of Hampstead Heath. I later realised the multitude of things John had relayed to me about the book — most of which didn’t feature directly — had, through osmosis, influenced my decisions. I now think a lot about things like texture when thinking about writing, and Tumult had that in swathes. I believe that’s what drew me to the script, the sheer amount of field work John had done gave it the authorial presence it has.

For this scene though, a key reference placed in the script was the image of Zoltan the demon dog. So as I was preparing to draw, then later colour. I knew I had some dark colours to work with along with that laser green from his eyes. Mixing that with the geography and experience of the heath it was one of the more fully formed scenes in my mind.

Where do you start once you’ve seen the script, do you sketch, thumbnail, or get straight to the serious work?
I thumbnail as best as I can in the time I have. By that point in the book, most of the blocking and language for storytelling had been set. I enjoy restrictions and limitations to the form and was probably at a rhythm where I could’ve plowed through as if it were like the other pages. Comics inertia perhaps? I set about it that way. In fact, at that point the deadline was so pressing, my thumbnails became the pencils. 

At this point in the narrative, the character Adam had suffered his identity crisis and we were beginning Leila’s story. The masochistic turn was exciting as a reader and I was beginning to have a lot of fun turning Adam into a more cartoonish person on the page, alluding to the Chaplin references earlier. In the pages prior, a gang had pushed him over in an ode silent slapstick. Secondly I had to juxtapose this with the fantastical occurrence within Leila.

Where in drawing the book did this page sit, how long did it take to complete?
It came at the midpoint of production, but most pages were finished. There were still so many tiny edits and things to tie up and polish though. Just before this point though there was an interesting piece of collaboration, of which there were many.

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I had to turn in evidence of progress, so submitted pages that had inked characters but no backgrounds drawn in. I can’t remember the particulars of the interchange but John had highlighted that the pages on that scene were quite interesting as they were, with no backgrounds and such. 

I was so set in my ways at that point I couldn’t imagine myself comprehending immediately, but with a bit of faith in what John saw, I eventually saw that potential as well. There were many instances such as this. Just takes a bit of time to see it from a different angle as opposed to being in the trenches of the work.

Were there any other challenges that stand out?
The next big challenge came later with colouring, where I had to get things in the individual page and larger scene to pop as best they could. A limitation I’d decided to put on myself was to colour pages in these 10 page chunk as they felt like natural episodes, with ideas and languages within themselves. This was following the sweatshop guys in the 50’s from whom I took inspiration with regards to their approach to the storytelling; a pastiche really but I’ll get there. 

The dark muted colours that dominated the idea of the scene had to take a front foot, and the final page worked well in isolating those shapes, Leila staggering, Adam crawling. My challenge was in having to apply that backwards. Meaning, I had to find a way to present the previous pages of the sequence that, at least in my own framework, prepared the reader for that final page. This involved finding the right colours for the flash back, removing borders and backgrounds on characters and what I liked most, eerily colouring the gang in an alien blue colour to the scene. Along with the yellow knife It was probably the closest I really came to those 50’s horror guys.

Finally then, what equipment do you use and why use these specifically?
The saving grace of the production was the digital aspect. Initially I wanted to make it traditionally but It wasn’t feasible money wise and production wise so I used my Wacom bamboo, a 13” Macbook, and Photoshop. I wouldn’t recommend doing a 170-odd page book this way, as it felt so myopic, kind of like looking down a telescope at a single panel. Nor was I insured.

However, what I’ve learnt going forward in my cartooning practice — along with being as organised as possible — is having multiple layers within the art file. I kept the borders on separate layers from the art, and the speech bubble on a separate layer too. It made a lot of things easier especially with such a complex operation as Tumult was, and It’s given me so much more confidence in my cartooning, period. Had I done a brush and ink job, I would have had to have bought a gallon of tip-ex to dunk fully inked pages into.

Cast your vote for Tumult by John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy at the Angoulême awards.