With his stylish psychological thriller Tumult receiving an Angoulême nomination, writer John Harris Dunning explains how the book came-to-be, his writing influences, and working with Michael Kennedy.
What was the starting point for Tumult?
Ten years ago I was on holiday and jumped off a rock - tomb-stoning, they call it - a bit like the picture on the back cover of the book. I fell 30 feet onto a submerged rock, splitting my heel bone and damaging the lower left of my spine. It was the start of 8 years of pain and rehab, and a very difficult time physically and psychologically. I was lucky. I could easily have been left unable to walk. I had always thought I was EMO, but suddenly I realised I was a closet jock. Sure I hated sports, but I still wanted to be able to be good at them if I chose to! It made me face my mortality and interrogate my sense of self. I became determined that something positive would come out of this experience, so I started writing Tumult.
Was it always going to be a graphic novel?
I started writing Tumult as prose, and got about a chapter in. I’d written a novel before, and published a graphic novel, Salem Brownstone, previously, but I had no real connection with the comics industry at the time and I just didn’t see how it would fit into the comics publishing landscape. I started seeing certain scenes and images from the story really clearly though. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samouraï and Un Flic were big influences on the book. They’re very stylish crime thrillers inspired by American film noir, filtered through a very particular French lens. Hitchcock’s films and The Talented Mr Ripley directed by Anthony Minghella also felt like similar territory to the story that was taking shape. So despite my earlier reservations about the practicalities, I quickly realised I wanted it to be a graphic novel.
What draws you to those kinds of noir crime mystery stories?
I really like how meticulously they’re plotted, how the stories have to operate with the accuracy of a clock mechanism. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a crime thriller - but if it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work though. I like the challenge implicit in that.
How long did it take to write Tumult?
I’d been thinking about it for a long time so when I sat down to write it, it had pretty much percolated. I feel like I had a lot of luck with this project. For instance, the main character’s best mate is writing about classic 80s action movies - the way the script turned is that the films he discusses chime perfectly with the main character’s romantic relationship, creating a kind of subliminal commentary on it. It hadn’t been planned that way. Something just happened subconsciously that allowed everything to really flow. It was easy when it came, but as I say, the story had been with me for a while.
Your main character, Morgan, has a number of personalities. Is identity dissociative disorder a subject that’s fascinated you for a while?
Yes always. As a kid I’d read classics like Sybil and The Flock. I love Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run, which includes a character with multiple personalities. It’s fascinating that on the one hand it’s considered a disability, but on the other hand it shows the extraordinary potential and elasticity of the human mind. And we all exhibit different personalities to different people and in different situations. I wanted to explore that.
So you finished the script, what did you do with it?
The next step was to find an artist, but I didn’t know many. I turned to Eisner award-winning artist Christian Ward, who we ended up dedicating the book to. He was just starting out on his meteoric trajectory back then. We’d become friendly, and were talking about the possiblility of his drawing Tumult. He went as far as doing a few pages - which were beautiful - but he was starting to get his big breaks from the States and couldn’t commit to a project of this size, so he hooked me up with the artist Michael Kennedy. I honestly think that without his encouragement and support I would’ve just left the script in a drawer. I can’t thank Christian enough.
Let’s talk about working with Michael then. What happened once he was on board?
Working with Michael was a marriage made in heaven. He and I had started talking seriously about the project, and I promised to send the script to him with a few reference images to get him thinking. I was on a train to the Angoulême festival, and the email remained in my outbox, unsent. Mike, being the meticulous genius that he is, with just a chat and a brief pitch document to work from, got going on an epic 100 page look-book for Tumult, including a proposed colour palette. It not only matched my vision for the project, it improved on it. And magically, he included one of the reference images in my unsent email, a really obscure image of a seance table. As soon as I saw that, I knew it was meant to be.
You had the script, you had the artist - what happened next?
I gave Michael loads of reference pictures, hundreds of images of the architecture of Hampstead where the story is set, ideas for how the characters would look and how they would dress, key colours, stills from John-Pierre Melville and David Lynch movies, comic spreads and covers I particularly like. Literally thousands of reference images. I also made a soundtrack as a Spotify playlist. Then I let Michael loose on all of that. I thought that maybe it was a bit much, but he was really patient with my obsessive research. We just had the best time creating our world.
What were your first thoughts when you saw the pages coming through?
They weren’t how I thought they would look. They were better. Michael isn’t just an illustrator or even a comics artist – he’s an artist, pure and simple. What I love about him most is his truly singular style. That goes for his line work, composition as well as colouring. Sure he’s aware of other styles and international comics traditions, but what he does is something only he can – and wants to – do. He has a sophistication and a confidence in his vision that is extraordinary. Getting pages back was like an exponential loop of excitement – I’d ring him excitedly and we’d talk ideas, and he’d get excited and draw more pages and send them to me and... repeat.
Now it’s out there, what’s been your favourite thing about Tumult?
Obviously the Angoulême nomination is amazing. It’s an honour, it really is. It’s my favourite comics festival, and let’s face it, it’s the most critically serious. It’s like the Cannes film festival of comics. It’s been incredible how the French market has responded to the book - we’ve also been nominated for the ACBD Comics Prize - and it's very gratifying, especially as I’m a big fan of French comics and cinema. It was great seeing how other creators I admire responded to the work. A highlight was the glowing New York Timesreview. The critic really engaged with the book, and got all my narrative references. It was the best review we got - and what a place to get it! Another review that really resonated with me was the review in The Guardian. You write a book and send it out into the world and you wonder what people will get out of it. It’s great to see it connecting with a readership. That’s what we do it for.
Cast your votefor Tumult by John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy at the Angoulême awards.
International burlesque artist Marianne Cheesecake will be performing her tribute to Josephine Baker, as well as posing in Kiki de Montparnasse and Isadora Duncan inspired outfits for your drawing pleasure. Class is hosted by Dr. Sketchy's headmaster Dusty Limits, an artist, singer, comedian, compère and one of the leading figures in London's Cabaret scene.
All levels are welcome, and art materials are provided free of charge. There are also prizes to be won!
Tickets for the event, taking place on Sunday 24 November, are available now.
Here we go, one of our favourite things to do all year! Next week we'll once again be heading to Thought Bubblefor another fun filled weekend full of signed books, original book plates and major discounts.
This year we'll be hosting the Eisner-nominated artist Rob Davis who will be signing The Book of Forks, his amazingly strange conclusion to the Oven Trilogy. Also joining us will be writer John Dunning (Tumult) and artist/creator Glyn Dillon (The Nao of Brown) along with the dynamic duo of David Hine and Mark Stafford (Lip Hook, The Man Who Laughs) who will all be making an appearance to sign and make some doodles.
I struggle when people ask me to explain the three books I’ve just written. Everything I have to say about it is in the pages of the books. And do people really want me to explain, or is it just that the books have left them feeling puzzled? Well, that was partly the intention. I mean, hopefully they were delighted and puzzled in equal measure, but I happen to think that feeling puzzled is no bad thing.
With these books, I wanted to create a world that felt bewildering and mundane at the same time. I wanted to tap into the transformative power and mind-numbing boredom of being 15 without resorting to retro-cultural referencing and being confined by familiar story tropes. I wanted a teen landscape that had trauma for furniture and boredom like dynamite, where the familiar was unfamiliar and the fantastic was bland. Because that was how my world was when I was 15.
JG Ballard described the Surrealists as having "created a series of valid external landscapes which have their direct correspondences within our own minds." I don’t know if it makes me a Surrealist, but I wanted to achieve something similar.
I wanted a world where you could be bored out of your mind by knife rain, kitchen gods and knowing the precise day you would die.
So maybe the puzzle that is really puzzling the puzzled is what kind of books these are. Maybe, with the third book in the trilogy about to appear in shops, folk want to know if this is all allegorical, or if it’s a dream, or sci-fi or fantasy... That’s probably a fair question, so I am going to try and answer it. With no guarantees that I’ll bring comfort to the puzzled.
I had grand ambitions of not falling into any genre when I started these books. I doubt I’m the first author who set out with that desire. I did not want to deliver upon expectations. I’m not against having my expectations met by certain entertainments, but I do look to art to confound my expectations and startle me, to engender a sense of wonder so that I can look at the world with fresh eyes.
As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that this is why art and capital don’t mix. People will buy a thing based upon having expectations delivered. We don’t order something through the post without knowing what it will be. And yet how we still yearn for surprise. Selling a book on the premise of not delivering on expectations is difficult, though. And with all due apologies to my publisher for embarking on such an experiment, I would like to add that creating one is also problematic.
One way I sought to navigate the expectations problem, having already created an impossible world, was by making three books that each take the perspective of one of the three main characters and offer three different readings of that impossible world. Then I realised that my three main characters were each representative of a genre. One character represents realism, one character represents fantasy and one character represents science fiction. This idea proved very useful.
1. Realism The first book, The Motherless Oven, is told by Scarper Lee via his home gazette (which is like a cross between a diary and a talking vase that’s given to kids when they are soon to die). Scarper has three weeks left to live and is miserable and resigned. What is crucial here, though, is that he is always miserable and resigned. He is resigned to reality. His reality is one where everyone has a deathday and children make parents (rather than the other way round), but because he is resigned to this reality we take that reality as a given.
Therefore his story is more like realism than fantasy. Our narrator is not discovering a weird new world (like Alice in Alice in Wonderland). The weird stuff here is mundane to him and so to us. The weirdest thing in his world is the new girl in his class. No one gains magical abilities or powers, no one saves the world or has an epic quest. Christ, they don’t even manage to leave the town they live in. Equally, there are no explanations of this strange reality to offer some rationale for how it relates to our own world, so it doesn’t work as science fiction, either. In a sense, this is alienated-suburban-teen-reality made even more real because what it feels like is wallpapered onto the walls of the world all around us. Scarper Lee is a realist and his book is told like a realist novel.
2. Fantasy Vera Pike is the fly in the ointment of Scarper’s world. She is that aforementioned weird new girl at school who becomes his enigmatic friend. The first half of the second book, The Can Opener’s Daughter, is narrated by Vera in flashback. Now, something different is happening here. Because Vera is not like Scarper and she is our new narrator, the way we engage with the world shifts. Vera is a fantasy character; she is heroic (or villainous, it’s hard to tell sometimes and the two can be interchangeable) and, of course, heroes are a fantasy. It’s probably worth stressing that - heroes do not exist in real life, and the moment a hero enters any story it is no longer realism. So, as I was saying, Vera’s story is in flashback, because that’s another thing about heroes: they have backstories, creation myths. (Poor old Scarper just had days of the week.) Vera has supernatural aid, thresholds, mentors, she even gets to slay the dragon (her mother) and rescue the damsel-in-distress (a miserable teenage boy in this case).
It’s important to remember that Vera is not a hero or villain outside of her own worldview (and it is that which we are concerned with here). This is because she is an idealist. It is how she sees the world. She believes she can change the world, bend it to her will.
3. Science Fiction In the third book, The Book of Forks, Castro Smith is our narrator. Previously, he had appeared as an outsider figure, befriended by Scarper and Vera. In the realism of Scarper’s world, he was mentally ill; in the fantasy idealism of Vera’s world, he was a mage-like figure who knew deeper truths about the world. In reality, his outsider-ness gives him an objectivity and his form of mental illness is Inference Syndrome, so he is constantly looking to speculate and make sense of the world, to look for meaning. In this sense, Castro is science fiction. His book will connect the speculative with the science. His narration takes the form of an encyclopaedia he is writing called The Book of Forks that explains everything about the world.
A side note about science fiction. Darko Suvin described science fiction as a form of cognitive estrangement, because it introduces something new to us and its presence compels us to conceive of our world in a new way. Cognitive estrangement is also the best way to describe the ‘illness’ that Castro suffers from and which makes him an outsider in his world.
So The Book of Forks offers the explanations those puzzled readers may or may not have wished for, not because they wished for them (if they did) but because it is Castro’s nature and bound to be his narrative. In explaining how a world could ever exist where children make parents, it rains knives and everybody knows their deathday, the book became a form of science fiction that grew to monstrous proportions and of which I feared I would lose all control. Thankfully, with Castro as cypher, it retained just enough subjective perspective to get it onto paper. And even if it appears to be the explanation of the world, it remains, however convincing it may be, Castro’s explanation of the world.
So, that experiment is over and I can try and heal my splintered mind. It was quite an effort and it may be that the question I could ask myself is, “Why did I bother?”.
I have wondered in my darker moments why I didn’t just look to earn a decent living and retain my sanity working on some franchise or other. The answer I tell myself is that I did these books because I believe in new metaphors. JG Ballard (him again!) talks about the world needing new metaphors and I agree. I’m not a fan of the popular notion in fiction that everything has been done before so therefore don’t look for anything new. A culture that runs on old metaphors is one that is speaking to the past. And the past doesn’t listen. There is a world here right now that demands new metaphors. And the perfect metaphor can launch a new reality into the world.
The third and final volume of Rob Davis's award-winning trilogy, The Book of Forks, is published on 10th October.
It's that time of year again: this week, we jet off to Bethesda, MD for America's finest independent comic book festival. The Small Press Expo celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and the lineup includes some of the biggest names in comics, including Chris Ware, Raina Telgemeier, Eleanor Davis and Jaime Hernandez.
The festival's international guest list includes SelfMadeHero creators Aimée de Jongh (Blossoms in Autumn), Typex (Andy) and Jérôme Tubiana (Guantánamo Kid). They'll be signing on our table (W23-24) throughout the weekend, as well as speaking alongside their fellow cartoonists in some intriguing events.
On Saturday, Typex talks about his monumental graphic biography of Andy Warhol ("Sourcing Biography", White Oak Room, 5-6pm). How do you combine rigorous research with compelling storytelling to make a biography that both informs and entertains? He'll discuss this and more with Beth Barnett (Dreamers Of The Day) and Peter & Maria Hoey (Coin-Op Comics).
On Sunday, Dutch cartoonist Aimée de Jongh, whose Blossoms in Autumn was released this spring, joins Guantánamo Kid author Jérôme Tubiana for a discussion of graphic journalism ("Graphic Journalism: On the Road", White Flint Auditorium, 4-5pm). Ted Rall (To Afghanistan And Back) and Josh Kramer (The Cartoon Picayune) make up the panel, which is chaired by Andrew Aydin (March).