About two years ago I sent off a short story to Queenspark books, crossed my fingers and hoped I would be one of those picked to take part in the Alt Brighton graphic novel project.
The brief had been for stories set in Brighton’s past with a basis in historical fact. I had been playing with two ideas, One about an 18th Century fisherman and one about a Saxon warrior woman. Whilst researching for story ideas I’d found out that the initial settlement of Brighton was a farm called Beorthelm’s Tun (Bright Helm’s Farm) and there was some evidence that Beorthelm was a female warrior. I started writing a story about her coming to Sussex and having a falling out with the other Saxons who had come to “protect” the land from the Vikings (the name “Sussex” derives from land of the “South Saxons”).
It was to be a sort of Brighton creation myth – Brighton was a place created as a refuge for all the misfits and weirdos. There would be Beorthelm: the Xena-like warrior, a roman soldier, a native “Welshman” (the Saxons referred to all British people as “welsh”) and so on – all living in harmony and getting into scrapes. They would be like a 5th century A-team: “The Anglo-Saxon Team” if you will. Though that sounds a bit dodgy.
Anyway, for one reason or other, I wasn’t happy with the way the story was going, and with the deadline approaching, I stuck to the first story: Seawater.
…Though if there are any artists out there that want to work with me on a story about an 5th Century A-team, please drop me a line via the “Contact” page!
Seawater was based round one case study from Dr Russel’s “Dissertation on the uses of Seawater”. There were only a couple of lines on the Sea Captain who sought Dr Russell’s help, but I felt I could identify with him. It appealed to me that there was a geographical impact in the story too. From all the earliest maps I had seen of the settlement that became Brighton, there had been a square of streets: North Street, West Street, East Street and South Street. But there is no South Street anymore. There is a little lane called South Street at the end of West Street. But the initial coastal road that made up one side of the square of the roads forming Brighton… is gone. Where did it go?
That formed the pivotal moment in the story that I nervously emailed off to the publisher. (Nervously clicking “send” on an email doesn’t have quite the same sense of romance as nervously letting a letter fall from your hand into the post box, does it? But that’s modern life, I guess.) The story was posted on their website. I think it’s still there. I might post it here.
Eventually, I received the news that I’d been successful and soon found myself in a room in Brighton Library, sat round a table with the dozen or so writers who had been chosen to work on the project. I was very keen to incorporate strong visuals into the story. I rewrote it as a script and then, working with my editor, Tim Pilcher, rewrote that script a couple more times before I was paired with Chris Hagan, who did the fantastic artwork for Seawater.
Chris was chosen through a similar selection process by Queenspark books. We had several meetings in the pub to talk about the progression of the artwork and try not to spill beer on it. I have a distinct memory of standing in the bar waving a bottle over my head in order to demonstrate a particular panel. Chris added his own ideas on how to use the colour palette to help tell the story, how panels on a certain page could be structured like classical paintings and other little touches which I loved. It was interesting working with someone else on something so personal and it turned out to be a real pleasure.
Chris hand-painted every page, which obviously takes months. It was great to see it take shape over that time. Chris worked with his editor Paul Collicot who recently did the lettering and added the speech balloons to the art. Suddenly the whole thing was there. And I saw a couple of last tweaks I wanted to make to the dialogue.
This evening, Brighton: The Graphic Novel, as it is now called, is finally being published. I’m very excited to see all the stories that make up the book and, I don’t know if this is weird, to feel it physically in my hands.