Noble Intentions: The Eerie World of Strip For Me
Posted by Andy Oliver on Jul 26, 2012
Small Pressganged is Broken Frontier’s weekly column designed to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked world of small press and self-published comics. Every week we provide a mix of review round-ups of the best of current small press comics and spot interviews with some of the movers and shakers of the scene.
This week I'm chatting with Douglas Noble, the writer-artist whose Strip For Me offerings in both print and online have given us the eerily atmospheric tales Sightings of Wallace Sendek and The Silent Choir, the idiosyncratic apocalyptic thriller Complex, and the distinctively bizarre The Dreams of Secret Cinema. Just last week in Small Pressganged I reviewed Dark Matters the collection of his collaborations with fellow Brit small presser Sean Azzopardi, and this week Douglas and I talk about his influences, his approach to story structure and just what the film Purple Rain was *really* all about...
BROKEN FRONTIER: You’ve been doing your own rather unique thing for a few years now both online and in print with both incarnations of Strip For Me. Can you fill us in on your history as part of the Brit small press scene and why you opted for the comic strip format as your primary storytelling tool of choice?
DOUGLAS NOBLE: Strip For Me has been a comic now for longer than I care to remember. As its title implies – initially it was just a comic for me, the kind of stories that I wanted to read and tell, and I didn’t think about an audience or even really showing it to anyone until much later. I don’t think that it gets any good until around issue 14 or so.
Whether I’ve ever been part of the scene itself is open to debate. I’ve been around, but I’ve never felt part of any particular group. There are people I’ve felt a kinship with, certainly – but I don’t think that I’ve belonged to any of the various scenes. Who’d have me?
Comics interested me primarily as they seemed to offer new ways of telling stories. That was interesting to me at the time, and my earliest comics are very experimental – half poetry really. After I had a taste for them I never really looked back.
BF: Your work has never been shy about embracing different media or forms of presentation and adapting their greatest strengths into the framework of your storytelling. The Silent Choir, for example, gives the reader the option of reading its webcomic pages in any order they wish, and Sendek seems designed to allow you to keep updating that single narrative with extra pages almost ad infinitum should you wish. Is experimenting with story structure and exploiting the differing opportunities of alternate formats something you actively pursue with your comics?
NOBLE: Charles Fort said that “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.” I don’t think that there is any right way to tell a story, and it’s really down to the story itself to dictate how it should be told. The Silent Choir [you can read the whole story online here] is based around the idea that something in the past happened that affected a whole choir in such an extreme way that the members no longer sing. That meant that every member of that Choir could become a way into exploring what happened, until the collective shape of their memories describe the mystery that sits in the centre of the story. There didn’t need to be a single entry point, and if I wasn’t going to limit that, then naturally there could be any number of ways to read through the story.
And you are exactly right about Sendek – it was created to be something that would let Sean show off the wild array of styles that he has at his disposal. The idea is, much like in The Silent Choir, that there is a moment of frisson that every episode in the story revolves around, something that can’t be revealed. In fact, as long as you didn’t disturb the central mystery of the series, I think you could extend Sendek out to an almost infinite length.
On one hand there’s a rigor to the structure of everything that I do – a different conceptual framework that underpins my approach to each story. On the other, I tend to make stories in the only way that I know how. One that structure is in place, it should allow me enough room to play around in.
BF: Your latest (print) published work is a co-authored piece called Dark Matters with fellow Brit small presser Sean Azzopardi which includes the supernatural entry Sightings of Wallace Sendek and the tense psychological drama Built of Blood and Bricks, alongside a new tale Pirouette. Would you say that this is effectively your and Sean’s greatest hits compilation?
NOBLE: It’s more than just a greatest hits collection – it’s a boxed set with everything and a little bit extra! Dark Matters contains all three of the comics that Sean I have collaborated on, and adds ten new pages to Sightings of Wallace Sendek that are exclusive to the volume. It’s all wrapped up in an extremely pretty new cover by Mr Azzopardi.
I think it’s an interesting book, especially in the way in which it documents the three very different collaborations between Sean and myself. It’s also three stories that will grow in the reader’s mind after they have read them, guaranteed!
BF: You and Sean have worked together in ways that put a rather unique spin on the collaborative process. I’m not sure if we’d be letting genies out of bottles here but can you tell us a little about that relationship and the very distinct ways the pair of you have approached your creative partnership?
NOBLE: All three of our collaborations have been done under very different circumstances, with wildly different ways of working. Our first comic, Sightings of Wallace Sendek, was the closest to a traditional script/art breakdown. I wrote Sean blocks of text and left the design of the page entirely up to him, as I had read enough of his work to know that he had a lot of different styles as his disposal and didn’t want to hem him when he was building the pages.
Now, it took us three years to get to the end of Sendek, for a variety of reasons. That was certainly a factor in deciding to do Built of Blood and Bricks in the way that we did. As Sean was busy on his own work at the time (check it out here!) instead of using the story as the starting point of the comic, we started with the images. Sean sent me 26 images from his sketchbooks and I cut them into pages and constructed a story from them. It was a wonderful way to work, I thought – the story itself could never have existed if not for the particular pictures that Sean decided to send, and it forced me to create something that I might never have imagined otherwise. It’s a way of working I’d like to try again.
With our most recent story, Pirouette, Sean was central to the content once again. This time he sent me a block of text and some images. I built a narrative around the scenes that his word implied and drew it myself. On every page I used elements of his pictures for texture, so it’s a real fusion of both our work in both images and words.
Hopefully this range of approaches gives the book a bit of variety that a traditional way of working might not have.
BF: I’d like to talk a little about Complex now [you can read the entire Complex saga online here], your longer-term story that followed a shattered scientific community as it patiently waited a coming apocalypse. It’s a highly original premise in that, rather than the usual end of the world melodramatics, it’s far more concerned with the mundanity of life and the boredom that ensues when civilisation has collapsed. What inspired you to juxtapose humdrum tedium and global catastrophe to such entertaining effect?
NOBLE: Maybe I was thinking of Eliot’s final lines in The Hollow Men, or some of Ballard’s work. Certainly, Ballard is a ghost that haunts the story from top to bottom – that was intentional, as you can’t do a story about any kind of abandoned building without inviting comparisons with him. Though I love his work, the interests and obsessions in my writing don’t intersect with his, so I didn’t feel bad about playing in his arena.
The other thing that drives the whole book is the idea that the end of the world is really the ending of all stories. The comic is constantly playing with that tension, of being a story set at a time where stories are dying out. The characters are trying to impose narratives of their own making on the world as a way to try and understand what is happening – as we all do – it’s just that they have a little more imperative to do so.
So that’s why the minutiae, the mundanity, of how they are living is important. It doesn’t just speak to the fact that the world is collapsing around them – it’s also that the story they are embedded in is moving toward its end with each successive page.
BF: I’ve mentioned that experimentation with the medium is always something that you seem to be very willing to embrace. Bearing that in mind could you elaborate on one of your most distinctive projects to date – The Dreams of Secret Cinema?
NOBLE: When I’m watching films I take little visual notes as I watch them, using a particular twelve panel format that I enjoy working in. From these images, I invent a new narrative, which is laid over the images to tell a secret story that could be said to have been hiding with the film all along. It’s a neat way to make a comics page, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at some of the stories so far. Who would have thought Purple Rain was a teen ecological espionage movie? Who would have expected Around the World in 80 Days was about a socialite’s bored descent into prostitution?
I love film, and feel that these Secret Dreams [read the series here] are a nice way to channel that love into my work. I think it’s important to trust your obsessions.
BF: There’s a certain strand of your work that seems to me, as a reader, to be informed by ruminations on architecture, spaces and the memories they hold. Is that a fair observation?
NOBLE: I think anything that a reader finds in there is theirs to take away, but there’s definitely an element of that. In a way, all the things that you mention are linked together in my mind. Our memories are defined by the spaces in which they occur, and memory defines who we are. Yet everyone knows that memories fail us: we can forget things, remember things wrongly...we can believe lies that we originally told to other people. If that’s the foundation on which we build ourselves, then there are a million fascinating stories just waiting to be told.
I find landscape terrifying. There’s an absolute lack of humanity in a mountainside or a desert. There’s nothing so monstrous as a waterfall. The romantics may have argued that this is the mark of divinity, but I’m not sure about that. My comic Places I Left You (right) talks a bit about this – and it’s something that I feel certain I will return to in the future. Architecture, on the other hand, I understand. I can see the hand of man in it – I can see the thought processes that go into it and the choices that have been made. It’s a reflection of us. That’s why in Complex we see a final pair of buildings standing in the face of the world’s end. That’s why the uncle’s plans are never built in Built of Blood and Bricks.
BF: As a writer you are never afraid to make the reader work in piecing together the separate parts that make up your greater narrative. This is very evident in offerings like Sightings of Wallace Sendek, The Silent Choir and Built of Blood and Bricks. I’m always reminded of the work of early 20th century ghost story writer M.R. James in that regard. How much fun is it teasing your audience in that way and to what degree do you think that edge of uncertainty adds to the atmosphere of your horror stories?
NOBLE: I have a very clear memory of reading a big book of ghost stories in bed as a child, and A School Story was nestled in between the Poe and Bierce that shared the pages of that book, so I was definitely aware of James, even if I wouldn’t count him as a conscious influence.
I think that mystery is an essential part of any story. If there’s nothing for a reader to think about, whether an image, or a phrase, or a plot point, then they are going to forget the story very quickly. If there’s something there that resonates and makes the reader think about the story, forces the reader to connect with what’s on the page, then that’s all for the better. This is especially true of horror, where there’s no way that any one thing that I could come up with could cause as much disquiet in an audience as giving them a space to create their own fear.
That’s part of the way that The Silent Choir is constructed – it’s an attempt to create that space to allow the reader to frighten themselves. It’s not an approach that works with everyone – but it’s the approach that I find most rewarding. Comics are built on the secrets happening between panels. My stories play with that tension. There are mysteries on every page, if you care to look for them.
Pages from Built of Blood and Bricks, collected in the Dark Matters anthology
BF: Following on from that… who would you hold up as your biggest influences from both within and without the comics field?
NOBLE: I am influenced by just about everything that I come into contact with, in comics or on screen or in music. I like to fill my world with art, and it is inevitable that the things that leave an impression on me are going to rub off in some ways. I think that my biggest influence, in a very real sense, is Flannery O’Connor. Her stories resonate in a way that feels almost like lost memories to me. I mentioned Ballard earlier, and he’s left his mark, especially his short stories, which often play with format in all sorts of wonderful ways.
In comics there are lots of names – I count Lorenzo Mattotti as a vast influence, Fires especially. Eddie Campbell, of course, Carol Swain for her use of atmosphere, Mike McMahon for his willingness to change his styles. All sorts of things, really.
Alongside that there are people like Scott Walker, Guy Maddin, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, and Peter Greenaway. People with a distinctive vision, and a particular way of doing things. What’s the point in doing something that looks just like everything else?
BF: Anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting Douglas Noble in the flesh at fairs and cons will attest to the fact that you’re one of the most gregarious and approachable creators on the circuit. How important to you is that sense of engagement with your readership?
NOBLE: Trying to describe my comics to people at shows is the greatest way to help me understand them that I have found. I find out as much from distilling the story down to a brief overview as the people across the table do, and sometimes more. Besides, it’s always nice to meet new people, and it’s good to get a sense of the type that might be interested in reading my work. I make my comics to be read, after all!
BF: You recently participated at the Crossmedia exhibition at Strip Turnhout in Belgium at the end of the last year. It’s not the first time that your work has been in an exhibition. How did you get involved in yet another form of presentation for your sequential art? And were there any specific challenges in creating a comic strip for this environment?
NOBLE: Simply put, I was asked. The piece that I came up with for the exhibition was entirely new, and was entitled Why Did You Turn? (see right) Spread out over two walls of the exhibition space, it consisted of 26 short stories, inviting the viewer to map the connections between the various characters that appear.
I wanted the piece to be specific to the event, so the final page, on the wall opposite the other twenty-five, was drawn and written in the room itself on the day before the show opened, so as best to integrate the themes of the show itself into my story. This makes the viewer complicit in the story – actually putting them into the narrative as they read - it asks them the question in the title of the work: why they have turned away from all the characters on the wall behind them.
It’s a simple idea – but something that you need two walls to be able to attempt. It was great to get a chance to do it. I’d like to see it exhibited again somewhere, only with a new final page to compliment wherever it was shown.
BF: And the obvious final question: what can we expect from Douglas Noble in terms of projects in the near and longer-term future?
NOBLE: I’ve been quiet recently, as I’ve been working out one or two things in the background, but the rest of the year should see a whole slew of new projects from me.
The website will be continuing to showcase Dreams of Secret Cinema as I find the right films to join that series. There will also be more pages of a new generation -spanning comic called The Lies of the Saints (below left), which I’ve mapped out and started to draw. It takes place over 500 years and documents the recurring patterns of behaviour in one specific family, and their attempts to break out of the roles they seemed doomed to repeat. It should be good, and it’s very pink.
In print, I’ve been working steadily on a new comic called The Devil Has A Diamond Heart (above right). It’s eleven chapters of broken romance, set all around the world. I’ve just about finished lettering the first chapter as I write this, so hopefully that will be escaping into public very soon.
In addition to this new work, I’m looking to put together at least one new volume collecting some older stories, possibly more. There are still a few things that I would like to see out on people’s bookshelves that don’t exist at the moment.
Aside from that, I’m always open to new ideas. Who knows what might come along?
Andy Oliver is Broken Frontier’s Managing Editor and a contributor to Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.
If you are a small press comics creator, or self-publisher, and would like your work to be reviewed in a future edition of Small Pressganged then e-mail Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org for further details. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.
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