A Message from Freight
designer Derick Carss
A War of Attrition
For writer, artist and publisher, Dougies War is the first graphic novel any of the team had worked on. Inspiration came from a wide variety of sources. Find out more about Dougies War here. Get a sneak preview of Dave Turbitts stunning artwork and Nick Collinss photography, read about how Dave and Rodge approached writing about Afghanistan and read extracts from the books moving interviews with veterans.
Lauren Nicoll talks to Rodge Glass about how Dougies War was created.
How did the project come about?
Ive known about Freight since my first ever publication, which was The Knuckle End collection of short stories that came out in 2004. I got to know Adrian Searle, a Director at Freight, through that process, and he has followed my work over the years. My last novel, Hope for Newborns, was about three generations of an army family based in a fictional barbers shop in Manchester; Adrian was very kind about that novel and knew I had an interest in this sort of subject, so he approached me to do it.
How did you get an illustrator on board?
Originally I wanted to work with somebody new that I didnt know. We had a real struggle trying to find somebody we felt had the spirit of what we wanted, by which I mean we wanted something kind of anti-macho - not big guns and big tits, and all that sort of thing. I wanted something kind of anti-superhero, because thats a big part of what the story is about. We got a whole lot of people to sample pages for us, and there were a lot of good artists, but just nobody who seemed to fit what we wanted. So we went for somebody who Ive known for years, Dave Turbitt - who went to Edinburgh College of Art and who works for BBC Worldwide in London - and whos from the south side of Glasgow where I live now and where the story is set.
What was it like collaborating on the project?
I really enjoyed it. Im not a shy writer that wants to sit in my garret and just do things on my own; I like doing joint projects and I enjoy a collaborative process. In terms of the actual practical putting together, Dougies War is in four episodes, so I wrote the first episode and sent it to Dave before I wrote the second one. I knew what I wanted to happen in the story generally but, in terms of the actual physical line to line, I wanted to see what Dave would do with the first episode before I wrote the second. For example, Dougies two friends that appear in the first episode - it was only really once Id seen them that I decided to make them bigger characters because I thought oh right, thats what they look like! Maybe I should rethink what I was going to do with them. And that was quite a fun part of the process, because it meant that there was a lot more back and forth. I think that if Id written the entire script and sent it to Dave it wouldve been a lot more rigid, and any problems wed have had in it we wouldnt have had the opportunity to work those out. . .it wouldnt have been a collaboration.
So it was quite an organic process?
Yes, we talked in the phone a great deal, chatting about Dougie and his world in terms of scenes, about the places he would live. We wanted to know what streets he would live on, the pub he would drink in - all that sort of thing. So Dave and I visited the pub. I had a very specific idea of the last old mans pub on my street, which is very close to where Dave grew up as well. So we took photographs from outside, we went in during a Rangers game - people werent very happy to see us - and theres a section in Episode Two where you see the pub from above when Dougie is quite disorientated, and all of those scenes and the backgrounds to them come from photos that Dave took. So it was quite a joint thing, and we felt like it had to have quite a coherent sense of place; so that place is the part of the south side where I live and where Dave grew up.
Was it difficult to make the transition from novels to graphic novels? I read an interview with Art Spiegelman in which he said that each speech bubble in Maus was rewritten forty times in order to condense it, how did you find that process?
Thats interesting that Spiegelman should say that, because my experience was exactly that. There are a lot less words in the end than what I originally wrote. In fact Dave and I were joking about that. Ninety percent of my contribution is now not on the page because a lot of it was in italics to describe to Dave what I wanted to do. If you write an effective short story or novel the old cliché is show not tell, and in a graphic novel that is literally true. Many of the things the characters were saying I realised was actually overstatement, because you could see what they were doing and you could hopefully feel it in the way they are depicted in the panels, so I cut down and cut down. Also over time, as you get to know the character better - through writing and rewriting, and also through working with the artist - you get a clearer sense of the things he would say and the kind of things he wouldnt. Things like making him convincingly Glaswegian was a real issue. Originally I wanted to write it in Scots: Ive lived here for 14 years and Im pretty familiar with the voice - even though when I open my own mouth I dont sound Scottish - but Daves feeling, and Adrians, was that they didnt really want that and that they thought it might seem a little bit too forced. Im really pleased that in the end we didnt do that. What I did instead was to pick key words, or words that you perhaps wouldnt use if you were English, but it wasnt about accent as such, it was about sentence structure and the odd little hint of it here and there. So things like that changed as the script went on.
In the Afterword you thank Denise Mina, another Glasgow novelist who has made the transition from writing novels to writing graphic novels, for her help in turning a novelist into a graphic novelist. What was her advice?
Some of it was really practical for starters, in that she gave me a graphic novel cheat sheet for those of us that are used to writing stories just on the page. I didnt know when I got started really simple things like: how do you arrange the page? Do you arrange it like a film script? How much direction do you give the artist? Should you be telling them everything, or should you give them the freedom to express themselves? The truth is usually between the two in any of these situations. Denise sent me a script of one of the early graphic novels that shed written, and chatted to me about the kinds of things to look out for, and regular mistakes that people make. I think that its really important that whatever you do, instead of arrogantly assuming that you know everything, take on advice from those whove done it, and even if you dont agree with them about everything, its something to bounce off, and something to respond to and to work out what your own voice is in that form.
How familiar with the form were you prior to beginning the project?
Not as much as I would like to have been but I very quickly got back into it, and I was really pleased to find that actually there was a whole world of graphic novels out there that were kind of more intelligent I suppose, and that werent afraid to be a little bit less predictable about storytelling styles. And just being a little bit darker in general which is where my work tends to gravitate to. This is obviously a very dark story, there was no way of getting around it, and I didnt want to turn it into something with huge, great big supposedly exciting explosions - thats the opposite from the point. So I read things like Pride of Baghdad, Persepolis, and Waltz with Bashir particularly. I spent some time in Israel and found it quite a difficult experience; I feel quite conflicted about my relationship to the place, but seeing the subtlety of that story particularly, and how it dealt with the conflict in Lebanon in the early 80s, I thought wow, these are things that can be properly dealt with in a really gut-wrenching, appealing, smart way in graphic novels. . .where have I been all of these years? Rediscovering it was a really exciting thing.
Is it a form you would consider working in again?
Absolutely, Id love to. What I love about what I do is that you sometimes get so surprised by a) what you get asked to do, and b) what you realise youre interested in. I used to read a lot of comics when I was a kid, but used to get very turned off by the whole superhero thing. I wasnt very interested in that. I wanted stories set in the real world that I could believe in.
The author of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, said of the graphic novel: "Its like an opera: you have to go a couple of times to appreciate it." Would you agree with her statement?
I think its definitely right from my experience for sure, because - particularly if youre from a literary, snobby novelist background, which Im from - you get drummed into you all of the time whats important or proper literature and what isnt. You feel a little bit embarrassed walking round reading comics, although you quickly realise that there are many societies where there is absolutely no stigma at all, particularly places like Japan, and its not such a nerdy thing after all.
I really got into it very quickly, but it did take about two or three stories. It was the volumes of War Stories by Garth Ennis particularly that I thought Ah right, I get it now! Theres one of those, a story about four guys trapped in a bunker together during the Spanish Civil War - I was really interested in the Spanish Civil War at the time - and I just thought, this doesnt compromise it at all, this is fantastic, this is great storytelling. I think when you forget what form youre reading in, thats perhaps when you completely relax into it. So I see what she means; I think shes got it right.
How do you feel about the term graphic novel? A lot of longstanding comic fans regard it as a term coined to make literary snobs feel less guilty about reading comics.
Its a funny one. Because I came into this knowing less than some of the others who are more familiar with the world of graphic novels, or comics, Id actually said to Adrian, and to Dave, what do I call them? Am I going to make an idiot of myself by calling them graphic novels? Or am I going to make an idiot of myself by calling them comics? And they just shrugged their shoulders. I do think part of it is an attempt to make that world more accessible to people who might take it more seriously, but I also think there are some people in the comic/graphic novel world who want to be taken more seriously, and so its a word that allows for that I suppose. I suppose in my heart of hearts I want to call them comics, so Im going to keep on doing that until someone tells me Ive got it wrong.
Aside from the graphic novel research you undertook prior to beginning the project, you also interviewed veterans. How did you find that experience, and how did it influence the content of the book?
Hugely. The story is based very much on an amalgam of a number of things I heard, plus my own imagination. How did I find the experience? Well, for starters quite frightening. There is no doubt that I am a middle class boy that has never been in the army, and I dont pretend to understand what any of these folks have gone through. The project isnt about me pretending that I get it entirely, in fact partly its about accepting that you cant, but trying to empathise and trying to tell somebodys story as best you can. Its always interesting when you go into these types of projects, generally your preconceptions are blown away. What I didnt expect was to be pitied, which was interesting. None of the guys pitied themselves, but they would look at people like me and say its a shame for you that you cant understand the kind of close community and close understanding between people on the same side that we had in the army. Or you dont know what its like to risk your life for the guy standing next to you, and you never can. So that was the number one thing that stuck with me, and the second thing was a sense of just not being remembered. The idea of Dougie steadily deciding that he has to do something drastic in order to be remembered came from a thing I heard again and again, which was that guys felt that you were just chucked on the slag heap when you were done in service, and that you werent really looked after. The only way you could be known for the things that you had done for your country was to die, because then you get your picture on the news. So thats where a lot of the idea for the story came from.
For those who know your previous novels, families - in particular dysfunctional families - are a recurring theme. Was the family context in the novel important? Were you inspired to set it in this context following the interviews you had conducted with veterans?
Certainly, because Dougies War is about the war that happens inside someones own head after they finish the physical war, and a big part of that mental war is about isolation, about being disassociated from your background. You cant relate to people around you, the people close to you cant understand - you hear that a lot - so your relationship with your family, or absence of family is crucial there, and thats what the sister Alison represents.
Aside from the obvious, what do you think are the differences and similarities between this and your previous work?
My first two novels were quite kind of quiet tragic comedies that dealt with families and political issues in hopefully quite a subtle way. The new novel Ive written is much, much faster paced and darker, and its perhaps got more in common with Dougie. But the pace is a very different thing. Hope for Newborns and No Fireworks are really quite slow, and Dougie had to be fast. One of the things I had to learn about graphic novels is that every two pages you need something to happen, every ten pages you need to have an episode, people get bored, get on with telling the story. Even if your story isnt all about explosions and car chases, you still have to move it on, and that was a real difference for me, a real contrast.
What do you hope the novel will achieve?
Its very hard to say. I think in terms of the issue (PTSD) its one that is definitely getting more attention now and being taken more seriously than it used to - although not by everybody - so I hope that it helps to gets some attention for that - for the issue of PTSD to be recognised more widely, and for there to be less stigma. And for people to be looked after better when they are dropped back into society, because thats clearly a huge struggle for many, many people who are trained to deal with extreme situations and then arent equipped to deal with ordinary day-to-day civilian life. Naturally I hope people read it and enjoy it, and I hope that people get something meaningful out of it.
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Martin Brown talks to Dave Turbitt about illustrating Dougies War.
How did you first get involved with the project?
The whole thing started for me about a year or so ago now. Rodge came to me with this project that he had. Hed been commissioned to write the story and had already been doing a lot of research and interviews by then. So he suggested that I become the illustrator around about June last year. It was too good an opportunity to pass up really! The story sounded more challenging than anything I would have done if Id been writing a graphic novel myself. Its a challenge to get something like this across in a graphic novel. So it really hooked me within the first five minutes of Rodge asking me to do it.
What sort of challenges did you face in trying to tell a story like this in a graphic novel?
Well, one of the biggest challenges was the fact that so much of what Dougies War is about is internal struggle. A lot of it is internal dialogue, and that can often be quite difficult for the reader to relate to if youre not careful, especially in a comic book. So one of the things me and Rodge talked about was How are we going to do this? How are we going to get Dougies internal struggle across? And youre talking about something thats very topical as well. Its about current events. Its something thats very much happening now. So to be done well and to be successful it really needed to be grounded in reality. And if youre illustrating that then theres a lot of research that needs to go in to it. Even things like making sure that, for example, when conversation takes place on a certain street in the Southside of Glasgow that youve got the correct images of that street. Quite mundane things like that. But when youre illustrating a book like this its vital. It comes down to the details.
The other challenges like the fact that Rodge hadnt scripted a comic book before this or that I hadnt drawn anything of this length before become almost like a list of things that you eventually realise Yeah, we can do this. Like, just because Rodge hadnt written a script for a comic book before doesnt matter because hes a great writer in any medium. The comic strip is just a form that you have to learn to adapt to. And for myself, its a challenge because I know that to physically sit down and illustrate a book is going to take a certain amount of time and effort and struggle trying to get things right. But then it was just about scheduling my time and plowing on. I just know that Ive got to sit at a desk for
well, Ive lost count of how many hours it took to draw. But I just need to sit at that desk and draw. So thats another challenge as well. Just physically sitting in front of a board, drawing away for hours.
So, yeah, it was a challenging project in a lot of ways. But then, I think if it had just been something we could both just, yknow, skip merrily through, the final piece wouldnt have been so good and something that we are so proud of.
You mentioned the amount of research that went into Dougies War. Obviously Rodge did a lot of interviews with ex-servicemen in preparation for writing the book. What sort of research was required from an illustrators point of view?
Well after I decided to do the project I was on holiday in San Francisco seeing a friend, and her boyfriend is a US Army soldier. Although the book is obviously about a Scottish soldier, not an American, there was still a lot of important stuff that he was able to help me out with, mainly the kind of technical details that werent covered in the interviews that Rodge did. Finding out things like how an army unit would behave in a given situation, what sort of weaponry theyd be using
It was good to have someone you could bounce ideas straight off of, as the other alternative would be for me to trawl through the internet searching for these sorts of things and it just wouldnt have felt as compelling for me to do that. I dont think I would have got the same kind of result at the end of it. I did eventually go online to find a lot of the visual references for this stuff and with modern conflict there are a lot of photos online which soldiers have taken and which news photographers have taken and its a fantastic resource. I was able to find out loads of stuff. I put a lot of effort, for instance, into finding out what kind of jeep Dougie would have been in when the incident happens; what model it would have been; what those jeeps might look like when theyre in combat and not just in a showroom etc. And then I was able to go back to my friends boyfriend with that information when they came to visit and ask So, if you were driving this jeep, and you were gonna survive this explosion, what side of the jeep would you have to be sitting in? For something like this where we want to actually have some servicemen and women reading, if anything stuck out as being not true to reality the whole thing would have fallen at the first hurdle, so it was really important to get these details right.
And it was also important just to go up to Glasgow and visit Rodge over on the Southside where he now lives and where I lived when I was growing up. We visited the streets and pubs that Dougie would have visited every day and took photos for reference. You live in an area like that all your life and you never take photos of it cause its just
there. But I was trying to make sure that I drew the right number of floors on the Granary and that I got the interior of the Georgic right. Again, even with that mundane stuff, you have to do quite a lot of research. It just gives it that basis in the reality of Glasgow 2009, which it absolutely had to have.
Obviously Pat Mills comic Charleys War was a huge influence on Dougies War. Were there any particular visual elements of that comic, or any others, that influenced the artwork for Dougies War?
To be honest, I had never really read Charleys War before this project. I believe Adrian [Searle] had read Charleys War when he was growing up and could see a parallel to be drawn between some of the themes of that story and whats going on now in these modern conflicts. So he was able to use that as a springboard for this idea of telling a story about a Scottish soldier returning from Afghanistan.
As for myself, I dont really like the word influence when it comes to style and things. Its more stealing. So, one of the things that I stole was from one of the most important comic books for me, Watchmen. I completely ripped off Dave Gibbons 3x3 grid panel, because I was trying to do something where I wouldnt have to agonise about the layout and the different shapes of the panels. Because if you starting to draw something like this and you start to draw in big, crazy panel shapes on the page, you then begin to think of it more like a pulpy cartoon strip. But reading Watchmen again which I did before I began drawing I saw that the panel layout is very sober. For a superhero comic, anyway, which is what Watchmen is. Its a very sober, sparse visual style which tells the story in a very measured way and I just thought Thatd be perfect! Because what we dont want to do is make Dougie into a comic book hero, in the traditional sense. Hes a real soldier with real problems and real torment. But my style of drawing had to be something I was comfortable doing week in and week out and I draw in a very different style to the way Dave Gibbons draws. My style of drawing comes more from my art school background and from reading things like Calvin and Hobbes growing up where the brushwork is very fluid, and Bill Waterson [author of Calvin and Hobbes] does a lot with very little.
So I realised that this character didnt have to look like Superman on every single page. Because its a story about internal conflicts and internal thought processes, to show that on the page its more compelling if the lines arent completely perfect. Its more appropriate if the style isnt as square-jawed and superhero-ish as something like Superman or Batman. So thats why I felt I should draw it in more of a kind of loose fashion.
One of the other really striking things about Dougies War is that its done entirely in black and red. Was this a conscious decision and how did it help you tell the story?
Well, when youre going into something like this theres always things as mundane as the cost of doing a four-colour print to consider. But then doing a comic like this in two colours actually gives it more impact using just black and white and introducing colour sporadically. Then the colour becomes more meaningful and you can really use it to try and convey something. So using red at key moments can tell you a lot about whats happening to Dougie in certain scenes.
There are also other great advantage to drawing in black and white. Again, this something Ive borrowed, from Scott McCloud and his amazing book Understanding Comics. I read that book when I was quite young, and one of the ideas that really stuck with me was the idea that when you draw in black and white it becomes more about ideas. It makes more of an impact because these arent classic comic book characters. Dougie is no Superman. The fact that hes drawn in this loose style and in black and white connects him more with the viewer as they bring in their own ideas to fill him in, and it means he can represent all these ideas that are in the book. So that sort of style just seemed more appropriate for the material that Rodge was writing.
What do you hope Dougies War will achieve? Who would you like it to reach out to?
Well, international fame and recognition
theres a good one! I want it to reach out to Harvey Weinstein, Steven SpeilbergԵ [laughs]
On a more serious, more realistic level: its for young people who might perhaps be thinking about joining up; for the families of people who might be thinking about joining up or who might be going through post-traumatic stress; for people my age whove never joined up and who wouldnt necessarily read a big heavy book about the subject but might pick up a comic book; for people who might be in Forbidden Planet looking for Superman or Batman comics who might just pick it up and give the material a second glance; for anyone and everyone really, because I think the book looks at an important issue: the human cost of conflict.
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For a selection Dave's early Dougies War sketches, select the image below.
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