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Metaphrog on graphic novels and the creative process

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Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers have been developing comics and graphic novels together as Metaphrog for over 20 years.

In this Connecting feature, they tell us about the history of Metaphrog, their creative process and what's next...

Tell us a bit more about Metaphrog and your work?

We’ve been working together since 1994 making comics and graphic novels. When we published our first comic, Strange Weather Lately, in 1996 it picked up worldwide distribution and the series developed a cult following.

In 2000 we produced an all-ages graphic novel called Louis – Red Letter Day and we are probably best known for our Louis series of graphic novels. It was a big leap for us to make and publish our own full colour book, and to our surprise the books were nominated for several awards (including the Eisner and Ignatz Awards). Just over a decade later Louis – Night Salad was long-listed for the YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens in the US and also Highly Commended for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards.

Over the years we have always strived to bring comics to a wider audience beyond the usual specialist shops and publications. For example, we worked in collaboration with the record label Fat Cat and musicians hey and múm, to produce a multimedia project, Louis – Dreams Never Die, which included a graphic novel, a music track and a remix on cd or blue vinyl, and also a short animation.

    How do you approach the creative process?

    In general John writes and Sandra does the art but the creative process is always changing and we both have an equal part in developing the stories. Usually we walk and talk, discussing the ideas for a story before any writing begins on a script. Then the script is used as the basis for producing a dummy, or mock-up, that we can both read and then discuss again. This is the hidden, planning process where a lot of writing goes on in the form of visual storytelling and key decisions are made regarding the composition of each panel and indeed of each page. Once we are both happy with the layout and the feel of the story the final pages are then produced. With the Louis books all of the artwork is created by hand: each page is pencilled, painted and then inked. With other projects the art is sometimes produced digitally and the basic script can be somewhat looser.

    We've also had the pleasure of working on various commissions where the writing took different forms. For example, we were asked by the Association of Scottish Literary Studies to make a comic adaptation of Edwin Morgan’s poem The First Men on Mercury which necessitated a very different, more interpretive approach. The Time to Shine graphic novel which we produced for Creative Scotland was also very different - working to a brief can be restrictive but also strangely liberating and creatively it was a great exercise.

    It’s hard to believe we’ve been working together for nearly 20 years! It doesn’t really feel like any time has gone by. We are lucky to get on so well. Each new project feels exciting, like the first time; and yet we are aware that we are continually developing our skills as visual storytellers.

    Your self-published graphic novel series Louis has attracted rave reviews, where did the idea for the character come from and what advice would you give to others thinking about going down the route of self-publishing?

    The Louis character was originally inspired by the idea of a prisoner. Someone that couldn’t quite see the world around them, like a mole or a nearly-mole: but we wanted Louis to be likeable, even loveable, in contrast to the horrible world he has to inhabit. Over time his character has evolved and developed to be more childlike: an innocent, someone we can all identify with. The books are brightly coloured and evoke the world of children’s books, but both children and adults enjoy them, and interact with the different layers and levels in the stories.

    We were very fortunate that people read Louis – Red Letter Day and we have been lucky in receiving positive reader responses and reviews from around the world. It was very encouraging getting so much great feedback. We also realised how much we loved working with the character and went on to create more stories where each subsequent book stands on its own.

    People often ask us how to go about self-publishing and it’s very difficult to advise fully as we did things our own way at a certain point in time and now things have changed. We didn’t think about markets we just enjoyed creating stories filled with ideas that we are passionate about. Some constants do remain though and we still think it takes hard work and determination. You also have to create your own networks of contacts and build an infrastructure, fostering relationships and creatively marketing your art while recognising that these things take time. Working with a publisher allows the writer and artist more time to devote to the creative process itself.

    What are you allowed to tell us about your latest project in the pipeline for Papercutz?

    We’re very excited about the new book with Papercutz. After working on six Louis books, we felt it was time for a new direction. The Red Shoes and Other Tales is our take on one of our favourite Hans Christian Andersen tales, a dark gothic story, and it is to be published in 2015. It’s a very different type of graphic novel from the Louis books, and it took time to depart from the stylistic confinements we had created for ourselves.

    The Lakes International Comic Festival have also invited us as guests this year and some of the pages from the forthcoming book will be exhibited along with Louis artwork throughout October 2014. We’ll also be giving a talk on self-publishing, discussing our own experiences over the past 20 years.

    More information

    Metaphrog recently received support to develop new work through Creative Scotland's Quality Production fund.

    Keep up to date with Metaphrog by following @Metaphrog on Twitter and become friends with Metaphrog at Facebook.com/Metaphrog.

    This article was published on 12 Nov 2014