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Interview with John Coulthart

Interview with artist John Coulthart on his collaboration with David Britton and their book Lord Horror: Reverbstorm (Savoy Books, 2013).

"I would like to see lions come out of that bookshelf and not books." — Frida Kahlo

One of the astonishing things about Savoy Books is how aggressive David Britton and Michael Butterworth have been not just toward sacred cows but toward their ostensible medium. Every Savoy production has pushed at the notion of what a book can be. Their signature character, Lord Horror, has migrated from novels to comics to records and finally, with Gareth Jackson's recent Lord Horror: The Dark and Silver Age, to film. The last Lord Horror book, La Squab, was less a novel than a gesamtkunstwerk in a dust jacket (with text by Britton, illustrations by Kris Guidio, and a CD of readings by Fenella Fielding). Now here comes Lord Horror: Reverbstorm, a compendium that seems to have subverted every convention of the graphic novel before the genre even came into its own.

Reverbstorm began as a collaboration between Britton and longtime Savoy confederate John Coulthart in 1990. Somehow the project persevered through an extraordinary series of setbacks that included a lawsuit, police raids on Savoy's bookshops, the suicide of Savoy's PR agent, the death of the only local printer who would handle Savoy's inflammatory material, and Britton's second stint in jail as a result of obscenity charges. But what did not kill Savoy only made it fiercer. All this drama fueled the relentless black energy of the books, comics, and CDs the firm put out in the 1990s. Reverbstorm, with texts by Britton and visuals by Coulthart, finally began to appear as individual comics in 1994.

To say that juxtaposition of word, image, and sound is a hallmark of Savoy's work does not do justice to the full range of techniques visible in Lord Horror: Reverbstorm. Britton and Coulthart work the gaps with the same guile that a painter brings to the manipulation of light and shadow. (In collage, perhaps, collisions are the equivalent of light and disjunctions the equivalent of shadow.) For example, the words and images in Reverbstorm sometimes get deliberately out of sync, one anticipating or lagging the other. The intervals between Britton's text and various appropriations are treated as vertical gaps with sources ranging from the "high" (lines from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men") to the "low" (lyrics from Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "Alligator Wine"). This occurs in the visuals too. The dark architectural drawings of Coulthart, a veritable post-punk Piranesi, are broken up by renditions of "high art" (Seurat, Picasso) and pictures that look like sixth-generation photocopies from a manual of oral surgery.

On a formal level, Lord Horror: Reverbstorm is a book in constant danger of exploding. But what holds it together, aside from the lovely print quality of the physical hardcover, is its elaboration of the Lord Horror mythos. It reincarnates trademark images and obsessions from other Savoy productions — Lord Horror, Jessie Matthews, James Joyce, Humpty Dumpty, fascism, brutality, knife fights, monsters, depravity, outré hairstyles — and situates them in an imaginary city, Torenbürgen, that you would never want to visit. Ostensibly an alternative version of 1930s New York, Torenbürgen quickly reveals itself to be an urban environment reimagined in the form of a concentration camp: population exploding, resources running out, not just violence but sadism predominating... It is a prescient vision. Lord Horror: Reverbstorm realizes in the most visceral way the world of insane extremes rapidly emerging from data on global climate change. "To write a poem after Auschwitz," the philosopher Theodor Adorno declared, "is barbaric," but what may be most barbaric of all is to realize that the concentration camp, far from being a disgrace from the past, may actually be a model for the future.

Interview with John Coulthart

You produced the first Reverbstorm graphics in the early 1990s. Was it challenging to revisit work you'd done so long ago?

Only in a technical sense since creating the book meant gathering together all the artwork and scanning everything. That was laborious but it was also satisfying to bring to the pages a consistency which had been lacking since the original printing. Once the pages were scanned I put new borders on every single panel and also re-lettered everything. The process felt very much like that described by film directors when they put together a definitive version of something that only existed before in a compromised form.

How did you go about making these illustrations?

Almost everything up to the end of part seven is ink applied with pen or brush. A few panels are collages made from shredded photocopies of other pages. I used to photocopy each page after it was completed so Dave had a record of how the work was progressing. Sometimes this meant there were several copied pages going spare. Once Picasso's art entered the mix in part five it was a natural step to incorporate collage into the artwork.

There's nothing new about using collage in comic strips — Jim Steranko was doing this in the 1960s — but there is one development in Reverbstorm that I've never seen used elsewhere: several of the collage panels or pages show events that haven't yet been seen in the panel-by-panel story progression, so you get little flash-forwards occurring within the drawing itself rather than via a flash-cut panel. I was doing this very consciously as a comic-strip equivalent of Burroughs' cut-up or fold-in methods. In many comic strips this would only be possible with advance planning that would lack the chance element of the Burroughs technique. We had the advantage of an improvised story with pages often drawn out of sequence; this created space in the narrative for the interpolation of new pages at a later stage.

The collage technique takes a new form in part eight which opens with several double-page spreads of monochrome painting into which shredded fragments of earlier pages have been worked. The painting gradually gives way to computer-generated vector graphics which lead everything back to pure black-and-white art.

How did you get involved with Savoy Books and how did the idea of a collaboration between David and you arise?

I moved to Manchester in 1982 and immediately began visiting the Savoy shops. This wasn't only for their stock, I was gravitating to Savoy itself since I'd been reading their books as they appeared. I met Michael Butterworth backstage at a Hawkwind gig (I was producing cover art for the band at the time) so things started off fairly informally. Dave wasn't interested in Hawkwind but he and Mike took notice of my work when I brought some of the Lovecraft adaptations into the shop one day. They liked the way I used architecture to create atmosphere so when the Lord Horror comics were underway they asked if I could create some art for the final issue of the Hard Core Horror series. That issue now forms the prelude to the Reverbstorm book.

The first Lord Horror series ended well so a decision was made to create a new series that would be both original and (we hoped) more ambitious. The artwork duties for Reverbstorm were originally split between Kris Guidio and myself but my work soon took over from Kris (who continued with the Meng & Ecker and La Squab comics) once I felt confident drawing Lord Horror in my own manner.

Can you describe how you and David collaborated on Reverbstorm? What was the process like?

The process has always been a lot more loose than most people would imagine, certainly looser than the heavily-plotted division-of-labour methods of the majority of Anglophone comics. Things proceeded slowly on a page-by-page basis following the vaguest of outlines. I'd visit the office once a week with a new page, and we'd usually discuss where the story was going. Dialogue was either roughly planned in advance or (in some cases) added later. What dialogue there is tends to be either perfunctory or allusive so this wasn't a problem. The narrative is sustained by the images not by what the characters are saying to each other.

For the first three parts Dave also sketched out a couple of sequences, the most notable example being the scene at the end of part one with the introduction of the Souls. There was no intention at the time that the thing which is described as the Soul of the Virgin Mary would eventually grow and start floating around the city. One of the things I enjoyed about working on the series was this flexibility: you create an environment and see what happens when you introduce some interesting characters.

Because of the Lord Horror novels, it is tempting to view Reverbstorm as a depiction of David's signature obsessions (as, for example, with Jessie Matthews). To what extent did you have to adapt yourself to David's interests and/or to what extent did Reverbstorm become a world of shared obsessions?

Lord Horror's world is a fluid one so it wasn't too difficult adapting to it. At first I was trying to be faithful to an atmosphere that was reminiscent of the New York scenes in the first Lord Horror novel. Later on I began to introduce obsessive elements or influences of my own; these are mostly architectural but in part seven I also introduce the image of the Black Sun, a symbol which has been present in my own work for many years and which has resonances in alchemy, Symbolist art and literature, and so on.

It helps that Dave and I have many tastes in common when it comes to art and films. Dave's rock'n'roll obsession wasn't a problem since there's much I enjoy from that area too. "Alligator Wine," for example, the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song quoted in part five, I already had on a compilation album. Dave's attitude with the way Kris and I approached his characters was that we should play to our strengths. With Kris that manifests in his talent for cartooning and a subversive drawing style redolent of children's book illustration. With my work it was Lovecraftian horror and a focus on art and architecture. This helped develop the Modernist theme and also made the world of the characters more fully realised than in the earlier series.

The graphics in Reverbstorm sometimes seem more narrative than the words. How did you and David work out a scenario?

I don't have objections per se to the usual story structures but in this series we both wanted to create something that wasn't following familiar adventure narrative lines. The precedents for me were the European comic artists from Metal Hurlant who often favoured art over story; also Burne Hogarth whose work was a great influence on the style I used to draw Lord Horror. Hogarth's Tarzan strips are adventure narratives but in his later books it's the art that's paramount. James Joyce is one of the characters in Reverbstorm, and you can also find a precedent in Ulysses where the story is overwhelmed by the surface detail.

Reverbstorm began with Paul Temple's lyrics for the Reverbstorm song and a brief Lord Horror film treatment that Dave and Mike had put together for a production company. I don't recall much about the treatment — I only looked at it once in the office — but it concerned Horror and Jessie Matthews in New York City, opening with a sequence where his Lordship kills some policemen in an alleyway. That vague outline can be seen in the first few pages of Reverbstorm with NYC changed to Torenbürgen. Other elements taken from the film treatment included the name Blue Blaze Laudanum — the actual robotic character came later — and the Souls which likewise became more substantially developed as the comic progressed.

Once we'd introduced all the characters things developed along thematic lines rather than strictly narrative ones. So the second part introduces the Ether Jumpers, the third part has the Apes, the fourth part the Ononoes, the fifth part Picasso and T.S. Eliot, and so on. Musical structure is an obvious parallel, and I consider some of the recurring background material to be visual leifmotifs which can indicate or imply one of the three main characters even if they aren't present on the page. This musical analogy is an important one for appreciating the series as a whole. The entwined themes and references work in a manner that's a lot closer to musical works than to the mechanics of an adventure narrative.

David often references rock and roll in his work. Music is important to you as well. Was an ongoing dialogue about music an important part of your collaboration?

A dialogue wasn't really necessary since it was taken for granted that music was informing everything we did. Music of all kinds was a continual background to the creation of the series, both in the shop and the Savoy office, and while I was at home drawing the pages. Dave at the time was playing a lot of rock'n'roll compilation tapes, some of which featured obscure tracks which club owner Roger Eagle had found for him. To keep in the mood while drawing I had copies of some of these tapes, and also made my own compilations.

In addition to the series being based on a song (and having that song recorded as a kind of theme tune) Dave and I also compiled a series of recommended listening lists for each issue. Then you have the musical component of each main character: Lord Horror is acting as a radio DJ (the real Lord Haw-Haw made his propaganda broadcasts between musical selections); Jessie Matthews was a singer and musical actress, and we see her singing a variety of songs; James Joyce was also a noted singer, and his novels reflect his musical interests. The book of his that most infects Reverbstorm, Finnegans Wake, is arguably the most musical of all novels in its use of language. In part six we run a song from Finnegans Wake, "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly," through the Joyce/Picasso thread.

David is known as a writer and you as an artist, yet David — who started out as an artist — still draws and you write. Was it ever tempting to swap roles?

I wasn't writing anything while I was working on the series so I didn't give that any thought. I did add dialogue, however, although this was mostly a working in of pre-existing texts. The intertwining of lines from T.S. Eliot with Screamin' Jay Hawkins in part five was something I did myself for the two months or so that Dave was suffering his second imprisonment. It should be emphasised, however, that I did this fully confident that he'd approve of the choices so it never felt like an imposition. Eliot himself makes a brief appearance in the Hard Core Horror series and we'd already used quotes from "The Hollow Men" on pages produced months before.

As for Dave's drawings, for the Reverbstorm book we replaced a weak sequence in part two with other material by Kris and myself. One of the new panels is a drawing of Dave's that originally appeared in Fuck Off and Die.

The imagery in Reverbstorm is gruesome and extreme. Was it sometimes difficult or disturbing to visualize? Cause any bad dreams?

No, not at all. People have asked this in the past but the fact is that you're often removed from the content by a host of technical considerations and the quantity of labour required to create each page. (All the pages took about a week to draw.) Now that several years have elapsed I find I'm surprised by the unrelenting intensity of the book. It's this that was being aimed at all along, since I wanted to try and equal in visual terms the intensity in Dave's writing, and in works which I felt were related such as Maldoror and some of Burroughs' novels. But it's the case that when you're wrapped up in the creation of something you never really view it the way people do when they encounter it afresh.

Were you worried at all about creating such graphic imagery given that Savoy Books has been hassled and David has actually been imprisoned for obscenity?

Again, no. The experience in the courtroom in 1995 when we were trying to defend the earlier series against some ridiculous accusations showed that the authorities are quite happy to damn you whatever the contradictory evidence. The last issue of the Hard Core Horror series which now forms the prelude in the Reverbstorm book was declared obscene by the court but all that resulted from that judgment was the destruction of some seized comics, and a ruling which gave us a bit of notoriety. Looking back, that moment was one of the last gasps of a particular kind of conservative hysteria over sex and violence which had prevailed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Moral hysteria and taboos never go away, they simply migrate when the attitudes of society change. By 1995 attitudes were changing, and the internet had arrived which meant the moral guardians suddenly had a lot more to worry about than a few comic books.

Did Reverbstorm impact your subsequent work in any way?

Very much so. When I got about halfway through I realised I was creating a visual landscape that was as much my own as Dave's city of Torenbürgen. This was important coming after several years spent adapting stories by HP Lovecraft where I was really only adding to Lovecraft's already substantial reputation. Prior to the Lovecraft work I'd been writing a lot of unsuccessful fiction including half an experimental novel which I eventually abandoned. I'd nurtured the idea of a return to written fiction, however, the question being how best to proceed without repeating past mistakes. The abandoned novel had the city of Manchester as its location; in the 1990s I'd had an idea for a novel about alchemists which would have had Prague as its location (despite my never having been there). Reverbstorm showed me that a better option was to invent a dark and fantastic cityscape which could contain everything you were interested in. That process became vital for the creation of Axiom, the book I produced after Reverbstorm.

Do you feel that working with David for such a long time taught you any particular lessons about what Burroughs called the "third mind" of collaboration?

It reinforced the concept as being a sound one. It's true that working together to create something often leads you to places you wouldn't have arrived at alone. Neither Dave nor I would have created this book without each other. But I also feel you need some kind of prior compatibility, shared enthusiasms, and so on. If you're both on a similar wavelength then communication is so much easier.

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The Kindle and iBooks edition of Horror Panegyric has been expanded with a new afterword by Supervert and additional excerpts from Savoy Books' most recent Lord Horror novels, La Squab: Black Rose of Auschwitz and Invictus Horror.

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