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Small Press, Big Screen: Paul Bedford Talks The List

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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 talking with Australian writer Paul Bedford, whose powerfully disturbing, psychological, horror story The List we reviewed here in 2009 and here in 2011 at BF when it was being published in its initial three-book format. Since The List was collected as one complete graphic novel this year, events have moved at a great pace for Paul with some very exciting developments regarding his OGN. So sit back and immerse yourself in the singular experience that is The List as we chat about this uncompromising comic story, the importance of the comics press in supporting self-published work and how a first-time small press graphic novelist's debut work was optioned as a potential movie...

BROKEN FRONTIER: Over the years that you have been working on The List we’ve given it review coverage on a couple of occasions here at Broken Frontier. For those in the dark can you give us a brief overview of the book’s central premise?

PAUL BEDFORD: The List centres around a typical suburban family who have been chosen by God to be the recipients of the ‘New’ Commandments, delivered via the hand of one of his Angels. The tale opens with the return of the Father who, before being Enlightened (a knowledge gained only by suicide), passes the List down to his Son. The reader follows the Son as he embarks on his urban holy quest, striving to complete the List so he too can be Enlightened. He marks the completion of each of the five Commandments (which are tattooed down his torso), by striking it off with a knife. Yep, an altogether pleasant story.

BF: “Charged with a brutal, creative passion, The List is an unyielding, tenacious work that revels in immersing its audience in an orgy of uncomfortable, ghoulish voyeurism. Traumatic, disturbing, yet refreshingly honest, this is horror comics at their most unflinching.” That was how I described the finale to The List a year ago. Given what a challenging and invasive read the book is, how would you describe it in terms of genre? And how did the genesis of the plot develop?

BEDFORD: Genre? Is ‘Fuckin’ Nuts’ a genre?

Seriously though, when I wrote it I didn’t really have a genre in mind. I was at a very frustrated juncture in my life and I just poured my dark, angry, violent story onto the page... instead of going on a killing spree (I’m just too lazy for that). I suppose the over-arching genre is psych-horror, but it is also a mystery as I drop clues throughout the book that culminate in a revelation at the story’s climax.

It’s interesting to note that, while the clues are (literally) right in front of the reader’s face, I’ve had only one reader out of the thousands of copies i’ve sold pick them up on their first readthrough. I have even told people (who insisted on knowing) which page number a clue is on - and I’m talking a splash page here - and still they can’t find it. I will admit to some sadistic pleasure at the thought of them staring at a page until they lose their patience and throw the book across the room.

With regards to the genesis of the plot, I must confess here and now: I stole it from a friend of mine. Yeah, we were sitting around one day and he was writing his grocery list, so I jokingly started writing my own list such as, “Kill a rapist”, “Get revenge on a paedophile” etc. It was only after that that the idea for a story started to sprout in my head and I imagined a guy just sitting down and writing a list of things he really wanted to do despite any consequences that would arise. But finding a reason for him doing it just wouldn’t gel until I introduced the religious aspect, which became a strong undercurrent of the book and the main theme with regard to acts of atrocity committed in the name of blind faith.

                 

A selection of pages from The List's harrowing interiors

BF: You’re on record as saying that comics were never a major influence growing up. With that in mind, why did you choose that medium for The List and do you think that allowed you to approach the book from a different perspective?

BEDFORD: Yeah, I can’t say I’ve ever been a comic reader, and only since I began writing my own did I develop what is now a deep respect for the medium, and the craft involved in their production... especially after our team spent five years knocking out the 200 pages that make up The List.

When I sat down to write The List, it was in a very rough screenplay format (things have come full circle - more on that later) as, since I wasn’t a comic reader, I was completely unaware of how the scripts for that medium were formatted. In fact, the idea of doing The List as a comic never even entered my head. It was only when I realised I had no bloody connections and no idea how to get a film script past my front door to anyone in the industry that I knew it was dead in the water. I then attempted to write it as a prose novel but, having it so visually strong in my head, I wanted it to be represented in a visual medium.

I’m not exactly sure how or why the idea of the comic came to mind, but I do recall being delighted at the idea as I knew the medium allowed for all manner of genres and styles, and that The List would translate beautifully onto the page. Within only a few pages of penning the story in comic format I was revelling in the medium, having been struck by the limitless scope, the power of the visuals and the utter breadth afforded me. It was such a liberating way to write as opposed to a film script which is limited by budget and page length. I was immediately hooked and added another drug to those already in my life: beer, coffee, my dog, video games... oh, and my loving wife... I love you, Fleur!

BF: You’re never afraid to make the audience work in The List to piece together the narrative –  to the point where the reader almost feels complicit in the events of the story. Was it a conscious decision from the outset to avoid spoonfeeding your readers easy answers?

BEDFORD:  That was the other thing the medium allowed me. I could employ whichever narrative style I so desired. While I did attempt the classic 3 Act structure with The List, it just didn’t work. It gave too much away and undercut the drama and the reveal.

I am a person who likes to be challenged by the material I read or watch and thus have structured The List as such, so wanting to tell a story where the reader had to work for the info was always a consideration during its development.

BF: The dark and brooding feel of The List was memorably visualised by the atmospheric art of Henry Pop. What can you tell us about what Henry brought to the project?

BEDFORD: I knew the art had to have a look that exuded the heavy tone and atmosphere demanded by the script. But, as with was the case with the film business, I had no connections in the comic industry. I was a guy who drove a forklift and thought of crazy stories... in fact, I still am.

To cut a long story short, I met Henry, he read the script and liked it and he knocked out a few sketches. It was like he looked into my thoughts as he produced the exact look I was after - dark, brooding, not commercial. Knowing Henry was perfect for the project, I kidnapped him and chained him to my washing machine, promising to keep him alive if he drew. Later I found the Inker Tom Bonin (whom I chained to the dryer) and together they worked to bring my script to life in all its disturbing glory. In a strange development, they ended up getting married and we had a ceremony in the laundry. Only a few guests could be invited due to restricted room. Ok. That’s enough beer for tonight. 

BF: What have reactions been like from readers in the year since The List reached its graphic novel conclusion?

BEDFORD: In a word, Andy, amazing. I think many fans and critics were expecting a straightforward ending, but I was determined not to deliver one, which you noted that I (thankfully) achieved in your most recent review of The List [you can read that review here]. I have letters from readers thanking them for giving them an unpredictable ending, one that kept them thinking and challenged (and disturbed) right up to the very last word, as well leaving an unshakable impression on them long after they had closed the covers. For our team to have delivered a story which had left such an impression on its audience is the most I could hope for, and I am grateful to the  fans of the work who have taken time out to let me know their thoughts. It is the greatest part of creating a work and makes the hundreds of hours of work worthwhile.

                     

Another selection of dark imagery from the pages of The List

BF: The exciting news for fans of your work is that The List has now been optioned as a movie. How did that come about and how is the project developing?

BEDFORD: Yes! This came utterly out of left field. As usual, things in life rarely come about by following the most obvious, prescribed route. In this case with The List, a relation of the girlfriend of the father of a very good friend of mine bought The List, loved it and sent it to a producer friend of his in England (confused yet?). Turns out this guy is very well established - Academy Award nominated, no less - and he loved the story too. He approached me with an offer to option the rights to the screenplay adapted from the story of the graphic novel. After some back and forths between the Aussie Writers Guild, the producers and I, we came to an agreement, and there you have it.

It hasn’t really sunk in yet. I mean, I this is a self-published work and suddenly here it is being optioned. I expected this only to happen if it was noticed after going world wide through some publisher, and even then it may not have occurred. So, I take it as a testament to the strength of the work we produced that it was snapped up so quickly. Of course, an option is an option, thus it may yet go nowhere. But it’s certainly a lot closer to being a film, and in much more experienced and well connected hands than it was a month ago (i.e.: none at all).

Your UK readers might be interested to know that should the screenplay find funding, there’s a good chance it will be filmed in or around London. That means I’d finally get to visit a place I’ve always wanted to see and try a million different beers not available in Australia. 

BF: Did you write the screenplay for the film yourself? And, if so, what challenges did that throw up in adapting the story for a different medium?

BEDFORD: Yep, the option was for the screenplay, not for the rights to the graphic novel - which is a big difference. Sure, the producers liked the book, but for the film version of the story to be be given any chance of commercial success, it needed to more, well, commercial. Now, while the word ‘commercial’ may scare some fans of the book, all I mean is that I am moulding the story to fit classic structure. While I mentioned above that I couldn't achieve that with the book, for some reason the screenplay structure let me see how it could be possible. But it was tough. I was stuck for weeks on how to establish empathy for the protagonist and yet still have the viewer believe that he could be enthralled and commits acts of brutal violence, while convinced the entire time that his actions were pure and righteous.

Also, while the book may be 200 pages, the way I structure my scripts is to have a maximum of 4 panels per page in actions scenes and 6 (rarely more) panels in quieter scenes. And, in attempt to be true to the visual medium, I am have tried to let the visuals tell the story and use dialogue and exposition as an absolute last resort. This resulted in me reaching the point where I had adapted over half of the book, yet my screenplay was not even a quarter of the way done.

To overcome this, new scenes and subplots have been introduced, and characters that may have appeared only briefly in the book are fleshed out. Furthermore, the ramifications of the protagonist's actions are more thoroughly addressed, so I had to research police and forensic procedurals. While this may have reduced the abstract feel of some of the book, the upside was it amped up the stakes and also gave the story greater breadth as opposed to the tightly-focused design of the book. I am exceedingly happy with the result, and should it ever get made, I can promise audiences that they are in for a brutal, jarring, high-impact journey.

BF: It’s a tough world at the moment for the major comics companies let alone the small press and self-publishers. How important to the success of The List was the comics press in spreading news about the book?

BEDFORD: I can say without reservation that without sites like Broken Frontier who are willing and open-minded enough to consider works on the fringe, or at the least not overly commercial, many creators such as myself simply would not gain the feedback, confidence and exposure they otherwise may have. While it may be terrifying just throwing your work out there for review, knowing there is every chance it could be publicly put to the sword, it is a chance that must be taken if you are ever going to achieve your vision.

As a result of these reviews we have not only received an abundance of international orders for the book, but we also built a solid base of independent appraisals with which prospective publishers can refer to, as opposed to the obviously biased opinion of the creator and his/her dear old Mum. To any of the indie/small press creators out there, I encourage them to bite back their fear and send their works out for review by reputable, intelligent sources such as the very one they are reading now..

BF: Over here in the U.K it feels like small press comics are coming of age. Self-publishing has never looked so “professional” and a number of publishers like Myriad Editions and Titan Books have been collecting small press titles and bringing them to new audiences. Are you experiencing a similar renaissance in Australia at the moment? How would you describe the state of the SP scene there?

BEDFORD: That’s great news about the SP scene in the UK. I’d love check out some works. Some of my favourite works either are, or began as, SP. Due to our small population, 99% of comic creators, be they writers, artists or both, begin, as a matter of circumstance, in the Small Press.

Much is the same with the quality and quantity of works being produced. When I first came upon the scene, I thought that I just hadn’t noticed how many good Aussie works there were, and how much talent we had, some of whom worked for some of the bigger publishing houses. However, it seems it was just a case of good timing on my part that I had stumbled into a new age for the medium. The scene here is incredibly strong. On my first visit to the monthly Melbourne Creators Meets back in 2007, there were between 8 and 10 people. It is now not unusual to break the 40 mark, with creators working on every variant the medium has to offer. The work of some of those creators is beginning to pay off, with several of them having been picked up by publishers and/or, as is the case with The List, getting sniffs from the film or television industries. Small Press works, unrestrained by publisher dictates or market trends is producing works of incredible variation, power and appeal.

BF: You obviously have plenty to keep you occupied with recent developments surrounding The List but have you any plans further down the line for another foray into comics creating territory?

BEDFORD: I do indeed. I have already written several short stories which I am hoping to attach some poor bloody artists to and release as an anthology, They are observational/philosophical works, so certainly a far cry from the morass of madness that is The List. One of the stories has already been drawn up and is receiving great feedback. Here’s hoping I’m not a one-hit-wonder. Ha!

BF: And, finally, what words of wisdom do you have for the aspiring small press creators out there about plugging away to get your work seen by a larger audience?

BEDFORD: For what it’s worth coming from a forklift-driving-comic-writing-Aussie, here’s what I reckon: If your story makes your heart pump, good chance it will have the same affect on others. Don’t subscribe to genre or the current trends of the marketplace - they will surely change by the time your work is complete. That story that is bursting to get out of you? Vomit it onto the page, then refine, refine, refine. If, at the end of all the sculpting it still excites you, you just may have something. My basic message: follow your gut, but let your head have a say.

Lastly I would like to very much thank you, Andy, and Broken Frontier for your continued support of The List and the Small Press scene in general. You are vital to its survival as a relevant mode of expression.

The List is published by Dog With A Bone Studios and is available for purchase here priced AUS$20. Please check out the link for international orders and postage and packing. You can also follow The List on Twitter and on its Facebook page.

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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 andyoliver@brokenfrontier.com for further details. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.

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