Before we talk about your past and recent works, can you tell us what is on your mind at the moment? What artistic directions are you exploring?
Certainly. I am creating a new OGN titled Project MKUltra:Sex, Drugs & the CIA. It is based on the little-known subject of weaponised LSD during the Cold War. I began research on the project in 2012. In 2013 I began illustrating pages. Since it began as a passion project I was forced to put the project down a few times for financial reasons while I made some money on other comic art projects. But now we are delighted to be working with Clover Press in San Diego to share our story with comic fans all over the world. The book will go to press this year.
I say ‘we’ because the story was written in 2005 or so, possibly earlier, by Brandon Beckner and Scott Sampila who wrote it as a film script. We met up after some years at a beer garden in Prague and they shared the script with me and I immediately saw the artistic potential of a psychedelic new graphic novel. Brandon and Scott tell a fascinating story laced with humour and tragedy that I adapted to comics with all the ‘chicken-fat’ I could muster.
LSD was synthesised, and its properties discovered, by Doctor Albert Hoffman. He accidentally ingested some of the compound and, while riding his bike home, temporarily lost his mind. Later the CIA noticed that Catholic priest Joseph Mindzenty seemed to be under the control of a powerful new mind-control drug. They assumed the KGB were using this new compound – LSD. The US then tried to buy the entire global supply from Sandoz and began the secret wide-ranging and illegal project known as MKUltra.
Cartoonist, painter, actor: is there one activity you consider your primary one? Do your several talents mingle in any way?
Primarily visual art, drawing and painting. I have plans for many painting series and would like to pursue them. For the moment I’m content to create my comics. But my interest in visual is broad taking in everything from new architectural design to typography. I tend to do what I can afford to do. One reason comics are so potentially subversive is that they can so easily be made. The combination of words and pictures is incredibly potent as a means of delivering information because the pictures echo the way we orientate the world but with the advantage of an index of related information. Anyone who says drawing is not a way to make a living has missed that everything created by people in the world from cities to dinner tables to pictures frames came into the world via the end of pencil. So this is my primary interest. I do love acting projects too. The projects do mingle, I think, in that I have always had to act out physical movements for my comics, big physical gestures and subtle gestures too – I wonder how would this character react? Comics may have helped me with my acting. I’m not sure though, but drawing and acting both replicate reality. Both mimic what we see.
This begs the question: how exactly can comics be ‘subversive’? What kind of effect do you have in mind, and what consequences could be expected in the non-fictional world?
I was thinking in terms of being immediately accessible and cheap to produce. Perfect for pamphleteering. Any medium can be subversive but literature, film and comics have been cracked down on in the past. Literature and film always suffer and go into hiding with God underground.
You’re well-known for loving Prague and having settled there. Are you also a photographer? If so, are there any photographs of the city you could share with us?
Prague is great, a truly great city. Once you live here it becomes hard to leave and we know many people who have left and come back. I think Franz Kafka said ‘Prague is a good mother but she has claws’. She won’t let you leave in other words and she has her claws deep in me. I do take a lot of pictures, reference images mostly. Occasionally I do a good picture, but it’s rare that I do that, or set out to do that.
‘Thrawn Janet’, your adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson story, was published in Aces Weekly volume 28. You have also drawn your own version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. What led you to adapt classic literature?
I’ve always been drawn to do this. When I was 14 our English teacher had us reading the poetry of Edwin Morgan. I remember sketching his poem ‘Glasgow 5 March 1971’ as a comic. To me it seemed each line was a panel description. I may have seen it as a lesson in comic visualisation. I had never seen a comic script at that time. I made many sketches of the panels I was seeing in my head, but I never finished it and the drawings are lost. It is a very visual poem so not something that needs a visualisation. But we lived in Aberdeen and I was probably the only one who could imagine the street the poem takes place at since my family are from Glasgow and I knew Sauchiehall St well. Maybe being able to see the street in my mind spurred me to draw it.
Here is the poem by Edwin Morgan:
With a ragged diamond
of shattered plate-glass
a young man and his girl
are falling backwards into a shop-window.
The young man’s face
is bristling with fragments of glass
and the girl’s leg has caught
on the broken window
and spurts arterial blood
over her wet-look white coat.
Their arms are starfished out
braced for impact,
their faces show surprise, shock,
and the beginning of pain.
The two youths who have pushed them
are about to complete the operation
reaching into the window
to loot what they can smartly.
Their faces show no expression.
It is a sharp clear night
in Sauchiehall Street.
In the background two drivers
keep their eyes on the road.
What is there to gain from a comic adaptation?
Not much in the case of the Morgan poem since it is word-pictures. But both Macbeth and ‘Thrawn Janet’ are written in old language. Old English in the case of Shakespeare and old Scots in ‘Thrawn Janet’. In both cases the reader can easily become unmoored at points in the story since the language of the modern day has changed. So I found drawing the panels and breaking the text into ‘bites per panel’ really helped with understanding the scenes. I think the genre of comics is perfect for old language texts because the images reinforce meaning.
‘Thrawn Janet’ was originally written in Scots. How did you go about translating the text into English?
Scots experts will hate me for saying this but much of the Scots in TJ is little more than accented English and quite easy for me to understand. Much of it was easy in fact. Some words have a deeper root and required dictionaries. There is also a helpful translation of the story online. I made a few choices that run counter to the story. Janet is middle-aged, or old, in the original and I made her young. In one case the word ‘carline’ is used. I kept it although it means Janet is ‘an old hag’ and contradicts my choice of drawing her young.