For the past three decades, Bryan Talbot has established himself as a force in the underground comics scene in a manner almost unfathomable in the US. Such a contrast is particularly jarring given the way that I’m first introduced to the legend, surrounded on all sides by costumed show-goers all shuffling about on their merry way to the next flashy bit of flashy Hollywood eye candy on the showroom floor.
For most of his allotted signing window at the Dark Horse booth, there’s a fairly steady stream of fans queuing up to see him, copies of Alice in Sunderland or The Tale of One Bad Rat or any number of the artist’s seemingly infinite works in hand, each one with a kind word or two about the ways in which his work has affected them over the years. But it’s hardly the manner of rock star welcome one might hope to see for an artist of Talbot’s stature.
But expecting impatient hordes is a bit of a fool’s errand. It’s precisely Tablot’s staunch independence that has established him as such a cult figure in this scene, the manner of visionary whose prophetic work is only embraced by the mainstream decades later in a rather watered-down form.
We sit down in the press portion of the Dark Horse booth and begin the conversation by talking about superheroes. It can’t be helped—we’re surrounded by them, and really, weaned on American comics of the 50s and 60s, they’re every bit a part of Talbot’s vocabulary as that of those caped fan boys roaming the hall of the San Diego Convention Center.
You’re out here to promote a new book, correct?
Yeah, really. Well, it’s partly a holiday. I’m here in part to talk about Grandville.
This is an interesting place for you to take a holiday—coming out to Comic-Con.
Yeah, well, I’ve only been in the con for two or three hours every day.
Do you still do a lot of these?
Conventions, yeah. Not in America as much. I was in New York last year. But I do a lot in Europe—Italy, France.
Is it a different experience over there?
They’re more of a cultural event than a commercial event.
Something of an art show.
Yeah, there’s usually art exhibitions and stuff like that.
The larger ones here certainly don’t embrace that aspect of things.
No, it’s all about selling stuff here.
Is that a defining difference between American and European comics, or just the conventions?
Yeah, it’s the way that’s conceived by the general public.
Why is that? Is it the nature of the superhero books out here?
Yeah, well, in Britain, the comic industry is tiny. It doesn’t really exist. That’s why most British writers are doing work in America. There’s only a few British comics. In America the superhero genre really dominates, whereas, in Europe, it’s any sort of genre—sort of a non-genre, things anyone can read. You don’t have to be a fan of any particular book.
A bit hypothetical, but, had you come up through the American comic scene originally, do you think you’d have been working more in the superhero genre?
I don’t think so, because I grew up reading superhero comics in Britain. When I was eight, I discovered Superman and Batman and in the 60s, the Marvel stuff all started. I’d follow Jack Kirby books. So I’ve read superhero books all the time I was growing up. But I don’t tend to read them now. I read other sorts of books.
Is there a reason? Do you find that they’re less well written, or just not as interesting?
Well, they get a bit repetitive. If you really think about it, a superhero without a supervillian, there’s nothing they can do. So, here’s a good guy, here’s a bad guy, they have a fight, the good guy wins. Now, after reading them, about 20 years ago, I started to realize that I had been reading the same story, over and over again. That’s the point that I just stopped buying them—apart from when an exceptional one will come out, like Watchmen, obviously, or Dark Knight.
Have you read any of what Grant Morrison’s been doing?
I haven’t. I’ve heard they’re very good. I’ve haven’t seen them.
Does putting your own spin on the genre interest you?
Well, because I’m not really into it now, I can’t really see a way to do it that hasn’t been done to death already, because I’m sure there are hundreds and hundreds of people who are spending every minute of the day thinking, ‘what can I do? How can I put a new spin on this?’ Every time I do pick up a superhero book, it always seems depressingly similar to the last one I saw. But yeah, apparently the Grant Morrison one’s are really good, so I really must check them out.
Was that something that had interested you before?
Yeah, I wrote and drew a two-part Batman story for Legends of the Dark Knight once.
Was that something you sought out?
Well, it was by accident, really. After Frank Miller’s Dark Knight came out, there was a lot of interest in Batman, suddenly. They started doing a Legends of the Dark Knight comic. I was lying in bed one morning, and I suddenly remembered an idea I’d had for a comic story when I was 14. It was a Spider-Man story—a Mysterio I’d forgotten about it, and I suddenly remembered it, lying in bed, and I thought it could make a great Batman story, actually. In the original idea I had, it was Mysterio convincing Peter Parker that he was insane, and that he’d imagined Spider-Man completely. In the Batman one, I thought, ‘what if Bruce Wayne really was insane, and there was no Batman?’ That was the premise.
I thought, ‘that would be interesting,’ and then promptly forgot about it. And then, four months later, I’m Glasgow, having dinner with Archie Goodwin, and I said to Archie, “what are you doing these days?” And he said, “I’m just taking over as editor for the next issue of Legends of the Dark Knight.” And I said, “oh, I’ve got an idea for a Batman story,” and he said, “what is it?” I told him the idea for the story, and he said, “oh, that’s great. Never done that before. Send me a proposal.” Anyway, I got back home and I didn’t do anything. Didn’t bother. I thought, ‘oh, he must say that to everybody.’ As soon as he says, “I’m editing Legends of the Dark Knight,” everybody must say, “hey, I’ve got an idea for a Batman story,” so I just didn’t do it. Didn’t do anything at all.
And then, about six months later, I went to a comics convention in London, and there’s Archie again. He came over to me, and the first thing he said to me was, “where is that proposal you were going to send me?” I said, “oh, I thought you were joking.” So I go back home and the following week I send him the proposal. I put the plot in detail. He said, “this is great, write the script.” I wrote the script. He said, “this is great, draw it.” I penciled it, and he said, “this is great, ink it.” So I ended up doing this Batman story.
A few people have told me that it was actually lifted and used in Buffy.
One of the Buffy episodes where she’s in an asylum.
Was that flattering?
Well, it will be if they give me some money [laughs].
That seems to be a big thing now in movies. Like Fight Club—projecting that whole false reality.
Yeah, that’s a similar idea, come to think of it.
[Continued in Part Two.]