Innocence and Depravity: The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone

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It’s been an amazing year so far for the graphic novel range from publishers Jonathan Cape with critically-acclaimed work from Mary and Bryan Talbot, Guy Delisle and Alison Bechdel already out, and new books from Joe Sacco, Posy Simmonds, Chris Ware and Charles Burns waiting in the wings.

But Cape are also responsible for shining a spotlight on newer or less-established creators who are producing sequential art that is just as exciting and innovative. Joff Winterhart’s Days of the Bagnold Summer and Emma Rendel’s The Vicar Woman are two choice examples, and earlier this month Ravi Thornton and Andy Hixon’s singular reading experience The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone hit the shelves.

Broken Frontier chatted with writer Ravi Thornton, artist Andy Hixon and composer Othon (who provides a haunting musical accompaniment to the book) about this grotesquely beautiful graphic novel.

BROKEN FRONTIER: The scene-setting question first, for Broken Frontier readers unfamiliar with The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone. Could you give us a brief introduction into the book’s basic plot and premise?

RAVI THORNTON: Unaware of the existence of each other, Brin and Bent are two socially defunct, oddball failures. They have grown up to be deviant freaks and are both drawn to the position of pool keeper at The House for the Grossly Infirm.

They are given the position jointly and, finding themselves alike in nature, spend their days together in deranged joy, abusing Those Committed with bleach and chlorine, and spying on them through drilled holes.

They do not know that someone else comes to The Pool at night: a child like no other, heavenly and pure, whose name is Minno Marylebone.

The story tells the tale of how these two extremes of depravity and innocence meet, and what happens when they do.

BF: The phrase “dark fairy tale” always seems something of a tautology but it does sum up the unnerving atmosphere of The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone for me. Does that encompass the book’s feel for you and, if not, how would you summarise it in terms of tone and broad genre?

THORNTON: I grew up on a staple diet of dark and adult fairytales. My mother was studying Angela Carter as part of a night course when I was in my early teens, and encouraged me to read her work. I used to savour every intricacy of those intensely wrought sentences.

I’ve written a number of adult fairytales since then – stories that have a definite fantastical beauty to them. But I’ve never really thought of The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone as a dark fairytale. Perhaps because the events that inspired it were real.

I suppose in terms of genre the book is a bit of a niche within a niche. I think of it as a graphic novel, but my understanding of graphic novels is quite broad. And I think I do have a preference for those that tend more towards illustrated prose than those that tend towards comic strip. Which is one of the reasons I love Cape so much. 

BF: Ravi and Andy, how did your creative partnership come about? And, given the rather unique look of the graphic novel, tell us a little about how the collaborative process between you worked in practice?

THORNTON: The script for The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone was very specific and incredibly detailed. The visuals were already very strong in the writing, and I knew it would take an equally strong style to be able to work with the script without being dominated by it. I began to look for an illustrator online, and my preference, because of the personal nature of the piece, was for someone fairly local. When I found Andy’s portfolio I knew at once I’d found the twisted beauty in his images that was the match to the twisted beauty of my words. I arranged for Andy and I to meet, and when we did, in Cord Bar, Manchester, I liked him straightaway.

ANDY HIXON: Ravi contacted me. I think she liked the style of work I was doing so I met her in a pub and she said she had a story she would like me to illustrate. I could see Ravi was a really driven type of person (even on our first meeting she had a intensity in her eyes that seemed to say ‘I'm going to fucking do this'). I'd just left my job and didn’t have a whole lot going on at the time so we set to work and then it quickly became an obsession for us both.

BF: Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, The Vicar Woman, Jerusalem, Days of the Bagnold Summer… the list of truly outstanding graphic novels from Jonathan Cape goes on and on this year. How did Cape become involved with The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone?

THORNTON: It was my agent Alice Williams, of David Higham Associates, who took the script to Cape. Alice had taken me on because of some young adult and children’s writing I’d done, so when I presented her with the script for The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone, because of its fairly explicit adult content (even more so in the pre-censored version) she was a little unsure. Alice is incredibly supportive, however, and when I urged her to show it to Cape she agreed to test the waters by asking (the legendary) Dan Franklin for his advice.

So Alice sent Dan the script… and he loved it. He asked to see some artwork; Andy and I put a full pitch together; Dan, Alice and I had a meeting; hands were shaken; and Cape’s involvement began.

BF: There’s a precision and elegance to your prose in the book. Each phrase seems meticulously considered and carefully cultivated to foster a certain storytelling rhythm. How important was the choice of language to you in building up the tale’s peculiar atmosphere and narrative identity?

THORNTON: Hugely important. I’m a great fan of musical language: language with poetic measure, rhythm and flow. I like to push and test that flow: sometimes to open it out into gushing opulence; other times to constrict and choke it – yet never to lose it completely.

BF: Andy, could you tell us a little about the process of creation behind your distinctive visuals. And just how long did it take to fully realise the world of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone?

HIXON: The world of Brin and Bent was constantly evolving. I would approach Ravi with an idea/character designs/different ways of rendering things, etc. and more often than not they would need more work but only minor alterations here and there. The project was very close to Ravi personally so the characters in particular had to be spot on.

BF: Your art, Andy, reminded me of a number of creators from comics to animation: Jan Svankmejer, the Brothers Quay and Dave McKean all sprang to mind when reading the story. Who would you say are the major influences on your style and approach?

HIXON: Dave McKean is, certainly. I have always admired the way he was/is pushing the medium forward both stylistically and in a narrative sense as well. I had a keen interest in sculpture before I was aware of his work, though. I was drawing from a lot of influences when I was beginning to form my style. Artists such as Henry Moore, Jenny Saville and illustrators like Jordin Isip, to name a few, have influenced me.

BF: You speak in the book’s introduction, Ravi, about the story’s metaphorically autobiographical component. Given that personal element, how frustrating was it for you that issues with the printers refusing to print certain pages led to amendments being made to some text and images?

THORNTON: It was a little frustrating, but not really due to the loss of content. The story isn’t really any less effective with the amendments, though perhaps it’s less disturbing. The content that was lost did count, but maybe only to me, because everything in my writing counts to me, everything has a reason for being written.

The frustration was more that in order to stop a major scene cull, I had to publicly state that the story was autobiographical. Not that I mind stating that, I just wish that the book would have had the chance to stand on its own merit. Now it will always be linked to a reality, and people will factor that into their readings and their interpretations of the tale.

BF: The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone is complemented by a stunning and haunting musical score composed by Othon, and available to download for free. What was the thinking behind opening up that extra dimension to Minno Marylebone 

THORNTON: I’m very interested in truly immersive storytelling, and feel almost compelled to try and push my writing as far and into as many different mediums as I can. I also thrive on collaboration. I’d come across Neil Gaiman’s reading of The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains, which he gave at the Sydney Opera House in 2010 with the FourPlay String Quartet performing live throughout, and had taken it into my head that a similar performance reading would work well for Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone. I saw it as an altogether darker, moodier and more theatrical reading, however.


Othon's CDs Digital Angel and Impermanence

There was no doubt or question for me of who to partner with to achieve this. It had to be Othon, whose dark, beautiful, theatrical compositions and consummate concert presence would not only tell the tale accurately, but would also carry my lack of theatrical abilities and give me the confidence to perform.

BF: How closely did you work together to establish the mood for that audio expansion of the narrative?

OTHON: Ravi and I had an initial meeting at my place, in which Ravi read the novel from the beginning to the end and I recorded her to my computer. I would say that this first reading was enough to trigger enough emotions in me that I knew, there and then and with utter conviction, that the musical score to accompany the novel would just flow out of me naturally and seamlessly. Such was the instant hit of inspiration I got from Ravi reading her work! After that meeting and whenever I got some free time, I would compose a section and send it to her. Ravi seemed to love everything I worked on, so the only meeting we had again later was for rehearsal reasons and to see how the soundtrack worked in terms of timing.

THORNTON: I’ve known Othon for several years. We don’t see each other very often, but whenever we do it’s as if we are permanently cradled in the same bosom: an immediate sense of warmth, joy and closeness. I can be a little hawk-like with my collaborations, keeping tabs and making sure everything remains true to the story as the project develops; but I knew Othon would understand The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone intuitively, and that I could trust him with it completely.

BF: Othon, is this the first time you’ve composed music for a comic or graphic novel? And were there any particular challenges in creating an accompaniment for a story in that form?

OTHON: Yes, this was the first time I did music for that purpose. The honest truth is that I have encountered no problems or challenges working on this project, but I think that this is an entirely unique case! Ravi and I share a very special connection, a very common way of understanding life and the joy of creating, which made our collaboration just perfect. Furthermore, I immediately ‘clicked’ with this work on all levels, to the extent that the music came out of me effortlessly, for the whole duration of the creative process.

BF: Talking a little more about the transmedia side of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone can you fill us in on the Ballet app that has spun out of the graphic novel?

THORNTON: The app is a re-telling of the story through a sequence of stop-motion films and contemporary dance. There’s a lock/unlock thread that runs throughout, which speaks to the locked and unlocked minds of the three main characters.

It’s similar to the graphic novel in style, but otherwise very different. The characters and their natures are told through the expression of dance. The touchscreen interactions uncover a hidden set of clues and codes that navigate the narrative.

The app’s still in development as there are difficulties with the costs and availabilities of the high-level craftsmanship and technologies required. There’s no deadline on the project, though, so there is time to pull the necessary resources together and get it right. I might look at Kickstarter as an avenue. I like the idea of offering Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone rewards!

BF: There’s a beautiful mix of melancholy, eeriness and a redemptive quality to the full Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone experience. I shall abandon any pretence of interviewing objectivity now and say I found it a remarkable piece of work. Have you had any other thoughts about exploiting the story’s potential in further media?

THORNTON: I’d love to do an actual stage ballet of the piece. A little ambitious perhaps, but that would be amazing.

I’d also like to create a micro-event of the Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone experience. I’m not sure yet how or what, but I like the idea of creating something that would cause a moment of physical unease followed by a moment of strange release.

BF: Finally, what projects should we be looking out for from all of you in the near future, both within comics and outside of the field?

THORNTON: I’ve another full-length graphic novel script with Cape at the moment, as well as a number of graphic short story collaborations that are currently in development with a host of fantastic illustrators. I’m also working on one for interpretation by physical performer Benji Reid.

Alongside these I’m about to start on a larger scale, physically pervasive immersive storytelling project, working as part of a team. I’m hugely excited about this! Watch this space….

HIXON: I am working on my own full-length graphic novel entitled Lucia, a satirical black comedy about friendship in a dead end town. I have personally poured my heart and soul into Lucia over the last seven months. It's nearly at the pitching stage and I can’t wait to see what people make of it. After that I am going to be working with a photographer called Joe Thomas, delving into the world of 3D body scanning for a series of short stories I’m working on. Apart from that, I’m trying to stay off the internet and computer (because it can be totally soul destroying) and trying to actually enjoy my life more.

OTHON: I am currently working on my most ambitious project-album to date called PINEAL for which I have recently launched a campaign (check out the Indiegogo campaign here) to raise funds and awareness. PINEAL will bring together the worlds of dramatic songwriting, dance music and Shamanism with special guests Marc Almond, Bird Radio, Ernesto Tomasini and the virtuoso violinist Hahn-Bin. Peruvian Shamans Javier Arevalo Shahuano and Jessica Ramirez Seopa are also joining the party! 

The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone is available now from Jonathan Cape priced £15.99.

To find out more about Ravi Thornton's work check out her website here. Andy Hixon's site is located here. And you can discover more about Othon on his official site here.

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