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Catching up with Metaphrog

Metaphrog. Photo: Bob McDevitt 

Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers have been developing comics and graphic novels together as Metaphrog for over 20 years. Last time we caught up with them they were looking ahead to their next graphic novel, The Red Shoes and Other Tales. With the book now published in the USA and imminently due for release in the UK, we spoke to Sandra and John to find out how it has all been going. 

When we last spoke you were looking forward to the publication of your next graphic novel, what have the past few months been like for Metaphrog?

Our new graphic novel The Red Shoes and Other Tales has just been published in the USA by New York based Papercutz and in the UK it will be available on 1 November – it’s very exciting. We finished the book a few months ago and since then have been extremely busy working developing new stories, preparing promo for The Red Shoes’ release and with public speaking engagements.

It’s an honour to be Writers in Residence at The Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, and our event on Gala Day at the festival went really well. It was brilliant to be able to premiere The Red Shoes and Other Tales with a gold-stamped Exclusive Advance Edition at the festival.

Other highlights have included our being invited to share knowledge and experience of the comic medium in a graphic novel masterclass for the Scottish Universities International Summer School, and Creative Scotland asked us to speak to the Momentum delegates, a group of visiting literary festival directors from around the world, about the Scottish comic scene and our own work.

Recent festival visits have included: Wonderlands Graphic Novel Expo in Sunderland, Islay Book Festival and The Lakes International Comic Art Festival who officially launched the book – we ran drawing competitions with them where one prize was a pair of beautiful satin red ballet shoes (which we promise weren’t cursed!).

We are also continuing to visit some schools including Northfield Academy where we are Patrons of Reading and had the opportunity to visit Gordonstoun School while we were in the area delivering a CPD on graphic novels to librarians.

In addition, we gave our website a makeover and made a trailer for the book:

  

Tell us a bit about what we can expect from The Red Shoes and Other Tales?

It’s a departure from our previous work on the Louis series of graphic novels, both in story and art style.

The book comprises three stories: two Hans Christian Andersen adaptations, The Red Shoes and The Little Match Girl, and also an original tale entitled The Glass Case.

We wanted to adapt the Hans Christian Andersen stories to suit a visual-storytelling format but we also wanted to modernise them and make them our own, make them more personal, as the original Andersen tales are very religious.

The stories are quite short, but each tale allows the reader time for immersion and the themes gradually reveal themselves; a gentle horror. The essentials of each tale are timeless and the issues, child poverty, homelessness and abuse are still, sadly, very relevant. We’ve also explored modern problems through the themes of hope, dreams, obsession and guilt.

Papercutz have done a fantastic job of the book itself, it’s a very lavish quarter-bound book. We have designed it, along with Papercutz, to be an object to look at and hold. We really wanted the book to have a good feel to it as we realise how important that is to the reading experience, especially in the digital age, and it’s also fitting for a book of fairy tales.

Growing up, in different countries and different decades both of us loved comics but we also read literature and, as children, particularly enjoyed reading fairy tales. These stories still speak to us and as adult readers we still get the same thrill and excitement from them.

The Red Shoes and Other Tales 

What has the response been like so far from readers?

So far the reaction to the book itself has been amazing and it’s gathering quite a lot of reviews. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist, important publications in the US, have given it fantastic reviews, and it’s been picked up around the web by bloggers and reviewers. We are delighted that here in the UK, important comic industry critical outlets including Forbidden Planet, downthetubes.net and Broken Frontier have raved about it.

Equally encouraging is the response we’ve received from young readers and from bloggers like Read It Daddy who have shared the reading experience with their children – and we’re glad to say that so far the children (mostly little girls) we’ve heard feedback from have loved the creepy bits!

The gold-stamped Exclusive Advanced Edition produced for the Edinburgh International Book Festival pretty much sold out, and we also put together some special packages of the book in a red box with signed Giclée prints, posters, postcards and greeting cards which were exceptionally well received.

The Red Shoes and Other Tales 

You are Patrons of Reading at Northfield Academy 2013-16, and Writers in Residence at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015. What does it mean to be able to encourage and inspire others to get involved in the creative side of graphic novels? 

The Patronage at Northfield Academy lasts for three years and we’ve been visiting the school and the feeder primaries regularly, not only doing talks presenting our work, but also various projects across the curriculum. One of the projects for example was for the pupils to create comics on Great Scottish Scientists, a fun way for them to learn about science as well as art and literature.

Being able to sustain work over longer periods and with greater continuity is particularly uplifting as it affords one the opportunity to deepen and strengthen the relationships, mentor and advise, as well as encourage and support work over a broader base.

It isn’t just about graphic novels and comics and creativity. Planning and completing a project, of any sort, is extremely satisfying and the ripples of positivity spread out across the schools. It’s great to work with young people, helping them attempt to realise their potential, and to maintain contact with the schools, learning of new, exciting developments.

Mandy Wilson, the librarian, and Neil Hendry, the head teacher, are both fantastic people and working with them is a privilege.

As Writers in Residence at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, we are working with hip-hop artist Dave Hook, from Stanley Odd, at Shawlands Academy, on a project based on fairy tales. We delivered a joint session in September to start off the whole thing, and Dave recently completed the bulk of his sessions at the school, helping pupils come up with fairy stories in the form of rap lyrics. They have thoroughly enjoyed this, which you can see from the brilliant raps they’ve produced, some of them extremely funny takes on famous tales. Dave is also producing music for them to perform to. In their sessions with us the pupils are to transform these raps into comics. It’s a hugely exciting project mixing different disciplines, and also great to see the pupils getting such an opportunity to be so creative at school/ The teenagers are mostly from Eastern Europe and some are from Iraq, so they are bringing their own backgrounds and cultural angles. The whole project will culminate in a publication, production of music, and a Burns Night celebration at the Glad Café in January 2016!

What’s next for Metaphrog?

We are extremely grateful to have received funding from Creative Scotland this year to create new work, and are currently developing new graphic novels, building on the last book, although we can’t yet reveal what they are!

Of all the facets of being author and artist, the one we love most is to actually be able to sit at our desks and have time to really immerse ourselves in creating stories and artwork, and the funding is allowing us to do just that.

We’re also still preparing lots more activities, for example for Book Week Scotland, and for Gosh! – the excellent comic shop in London, and a big book launch at Northfield Academy for The Red Shoes in November involving local schools and the local book shop, so we’re really looking forward to that!

This article was published on 28 Oct 2015