In this instalment of A Chat with… I talk to award-winning graphic novelist, writer, blogger and teacher Jason Cobley.
Hello Jason, thanks for taking the time to have a chat with me today. You’re a writer who has honed your craft across a wide range of mediums, producing an impressive body of work over the years. So where did it all begin for you, when did you start writing?
Hi George. Well, that’s very generous. You’re probably giving me too much credit there. It all started when I was a teenager. Back in the 80s, Marvel UK published quite a few weeklies and monthlies and, in one of them, a chap called Rob Kirby was advertising in the classifieds section for contributions to a new magazine he was starting, called ‘Amalgam’. This was long before we’d even really coined the term ‘small press’ – ‘fanzine’ was the word – and I had been drawing in my bedroom like many kids, so I cobbled a strip together and sent it in. Over the next few years, my ‘Bulldog’ strip was a mainstay of the magazine. When I went to university, a friend and I published a magazine called ‘Blackout!’ which optimistically catered for what we thought was a big crossover audience between music and comics. We actually did really well and made good connections. We got to interview people such as Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy, Grant Morrison, Karen Berger (via phone to America!), and bands such as Thunder, Anthrax, Marillion, Heart and I even bumped into Kirk Hammett from Metallica outside Nostalgia & Comics once and gave him a copy. He was buying a carton of Ribena. That was the hell-raising 90s for you. Anyway, after that I developed Bulldog further and it became something of a small press sensation, lasting 28 issues. I’ve sporadically revisited those characters, but it was really on the back of that that I got offered the chance to write for Classical Comics, then The DFC, and now I do a mix of self-published comics and professional work.
Who would you say are your biggest creative inspirations?
I’ve got the usual list I suppose – the 1970s and 1980s were really my formative years for comics: 2000AD and Warrior in particular. So, Alan Moore of course, but probably John Wagner more than anyone. I never forgot how gracious he was in doing an interview with me for ‘Blackout!’ and I was really happy to tell him so when I met him recently. Although I’m no great shakes as an artist, there are some artists who have inspired me in terms of how to put a comic page together. I won’t list them because quite a few are friends now and I’d hate to accidentally leave someone out! If you write comics, though, I think it’s important to read widely beyond the form too, so Iain Banks, Magnus Mills, Kurt Vonnegut and Cormac McCarthy are just some novelists that come to mind as creative inspirations. Music also helps generate ideas more than TV or film does, for me, and I’m a sucker for prog rock.
Let’s talk about your eagerly anticipated new graphic novel ‘Amnesia Agents,’ illustrated by James Gray. What can you tell the reader about this memory-boggling new project?
It’s been a long time coming. It kind of coalesced from some leftover ideas from a couple of projects that never quite happened (I’ve got more things that were nearly produced than actually ever saw the light of day!). Some of it stemmed from a story my Dad told about his earliest memory, of being on a farm in the cold as a child and placing a rake in the driveway to stop the taxi taking his sisters to school. It was something that formed some sense of who he felt he was, and I unashamedly nicked it as a focal point in the story. I was fascinated by the idea that we create our own sense of identity from our memories of who we are and our perceptions of what has happened to us. If somehow that’s taken away from you, who are you? I also wanted to create some sort of adventure grounded in the ‘real’ world, a sort of ‘X Files’ setup, except we’re dealing with memories rather than aliens.
Our premise is that there’s a physical place that memories go to, and there are forces at work that will steal memories. When the memory of a person is taken, the whole world forgets they ever exist. Except, sometimes, that goes wrong – and that’s when the Amnesia Agents step in.
‘Amnesia Agents’ was adapted from your prose novel, ‘Amnesia Agents: The Forgotten Child’ which garnered an outstanding reception in its own right. What was the process behind tailoring the book to a new medium and how joyous and/or agonising did you find adapting your own work?
I’ve always found it relatively easy to write comics. I’ve written some short stories that have worked OK too, but I wanted to tell this story as a novel. The result was mixed. My prose, even if I do say so myself, is good, but structuring a novel is hard. It really is! I learned a lot from the process. After a while, I looked at it again and, slightly emboldened by the success of others launching comics on Kickstarter, I thought I’d give it a go. I was really lucky to get such a brilliant artist as James Gray on board to commit to the project.
The process of adaptation was straight forward I suppose. I’d previously adapted the dense prose of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker into comics, so making edits and visualising the thing wasn’t too difficult. I had to strip out a few characters and eliminate a whole sub-plot that overcomplicated things. I may well use that in some form if we do a sequel. Creating the script was a complete joy, as James’ was completely in tune with what I was trying to achieve – every page he delivered was better than the last.
Whilst we’re on the subject of comic book adaptions, you have also used your extensive creative skillset and knowledge of the medium to transform numerous classic works of literature and theatre into graphic novels. Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ Charles Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ and J.B. Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ to name but a few. What inspired you to rework these iconic creations?
Ha! Well, I’d say my “creative skillset” is fairly limited rather than extensive! Back in the mid 2000s, the wonderful Karen Wenborn, who was at Classical Comics at the time, liked ‘Bulldog Empire’ and some other scripts that didn’t get published, and invited me to do one of the first of their novel adaptations. I got given ‘Frankenstein’ to do, and I loved doing it. It helped that I knew the book quite well. I was soon offered ‘Dracula’ and ‘An Inspector Calls’. As well as being great graphic novels in their own right, they were being promoted as teaching aids in schools, and as I had form in that area, it was a good fit. After Classical Comics had done most of the Shakespeare plays, they decided to stop commissioning new books, which was a pity, but the books still sell really well I believe. We’d talked in general terms about doing some others – the legendary John Burns was up for doing ‘Treasure Island’ with me and I really wanted to do ‘The Time Machine’ but alas, ‘twas not to be.
‘The Signal Man’ came about as an idea I’d floated to Classical and, once I got David Hitchcock on board as artist, we pitched to a few publishers. They all said no. It’s a classic ghost story and used in schools quite a lot, so I could see it working. We started it, then Dave had other projects and life took precedent and it sat on the shelf for a couple of years. Dave decided to have another go, and we think we produced something really effective. We even got a brilliant review from Steve Ditko! Dave is one of the best artists working in British comics today and it’s criminal really that he’s not doing major work with big publishers. I’m really proud of that book. What inspired me about the story in particular is that it’s centred around a man who is really haunted by his own fears in a way, in some ways a metaphor for depression and anxiety – and some of that has found its way into Amnesia Agents too.
One of your best-known creator-owned comic books is ‘The Adventures of Captain Winston Bulldog,’ a delightfully surreal and quintessentially British series that has seen you collaborate with some of the biggest names on the UK comics scene from PJ Holden to Neil Cameron. Can you tell the reader a little more about this title and its creative evolution?
Well, as I said, it started in ‘Amalgam’ in the 80s and eventually became ‘Bulldog Adventure Magazine’ aka ‘BAM!’ throughout the 90s and more or less up to today. The most recent episodes were serialised in Davey Candlish’s ‘Paragon’ and I collected them in ‘Bulldog & Panda 2018’. Winston Bulldog is an airship captain and war hero in an alternative world where you’ve got intelligent animals (mammalians) and intelligent vegetables (arboreans) living alongside humans, and rarely harmoniously. The Vegenation are the bad guys, supposedly, but as well as it being a comedic sci-fi action-adventure, I use it to do a bit of light political satire. Bulldog looks like an icon of the right wing, but he’s a socialist and goes up against his own leaders as much as he does against the evil veggies. I tried to get all kinds of publishers interested in the strip over the years, but none would go for it, hence it basically being a huge part of the small press scene in the UK for many years. Neill Cameron started drawing for BAM! when he was still in the sixth form and dipped in and out over the years, until we did what’s basically the ‘movie’, the 64-page ‘Bulldog: Empire’. That was picked by Constable & Robinson for ‘The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga’ volume 1, sporting Bulldog’s ally Samurai Commander Keiko Panda on the cover. One of these days, I’ll get a Kickstarter going for a Keiko Panda graphic novel. Artists apply here!
As anyone who follows you on social media will have noticed, you are a passionate music fan with a diverse and ever-growing record collection. I myself have had a lifelong love of music that spans many genres; so I ask you, as tough as it may be to narrow it down, what are your top three albums of all-time?
Now I know you’re stalking me, George! Ha! Yeah, I am quite fond of posting my current listening on Facebook! Top three is very hard but let’s try. One of the top 3 would have to be an album by Marillion, probably ‘Afraid of Sunlight’ but ask me tomorrow and I’ll pick a different one. Their latest album ‘FEAR’ is one of their best. I’m told it’s ‘Dad music’, which is fair enough I suppose. I’m a fairly recent convert to jazz, but I’d pick ‘A Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis as the second one. The third? Today I’d say ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ for the greatest drumming in rock on ‘Rock and Roll’ and ‘When the Levee Breaks’ but ask me tomorrow and I might mention anyone from The Beatles to Public Sector Broadcasting.
You’ve recently started writing for ‘Commando,’ one of the last remaining good old-fashioned British weeklies to be published by D.C. Thompson. How did you begin working for this action-packed anthology comic?
The short answer is that they put out an open call for submissions and I pitched an idea. The long answer is that the publishers specifically wanted some stories featuring Australian or New Zealand soldiers. I knew of one particular thing in World War One that fitted the brief because I’d been doing some research in that area, which brings us nicely on to your next question…
The first of your strips to be featured in ‘Commando’ was a story set during the Battle of Arras in World War I. I know that you have a strong connection to the Battle of Arras and you are currently writing a novel inspired by your relative’s experiences in said conflict? Can you let the reader know any details about this poignant and heartfelt work in progress?
I can. I found out on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme that I had a relative that died in World War One, in a by-the-way remark from an elderly aunt to my father. We hadn’t known before. His name was Robert Gooding Henson, and the only details I had was that and the date of his death. Long story short, shortly afterwards I ended up with a lot of time on my hands as I was off work recovering from back surgery. My Dad died about the same time, so it set me off researching the family tree. I traced the family back to the 18thcentury. We were illiterate farmers until the middle of the 20thcentury, and Robert’s parents met as servants on a farm. There was a large age gap between them and Robert was their only son. He was in the Somerset Light Infantry and died at the Battle of Arras, wounded on 9thApril 1917 but died on 22nd. He was defending a farm, seemingly separated from his infantry. We don’t know why. In fact, that’s all there is. Records for many soldiers then were lost. I know the movements of the SLI and enough to build a story around it, so that’s what I’ve done. It’s a fictionalised account of the battle and what might have happened to Robert. I hope to finish it this summer, then decide what publishing avenues to pursue.
Alongside being a multi-disciplined author you are also a passionate and enthusiastic teacher who has written several graphic novels that can be used as educational supplements. This is something I find incredibly cool because comic books have played a huge part in my academic and everyday life. I was born with Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy and one of the numerous affects of my condition means that I’m a painfully slow reader. Then I discovered graphic novels and realised the spacing between image and text within a comic page-layout allowed me to visually digest them much quicker than hefty prose tomes. Just like that, new literary doors opened and the rest is history.
You and I evidently appreciate how valuable comics can be academically, but to many others the place of graphic novels in the classroom is still a contentious topic. So with that in mind, do you think comic books will ever get the credit they deserve as an educational tool?
Yes and no. To be honest, their educational use only goes so far. Comics are a wonderful form to get reluctant readers into reading, and to help those for whom the traditional reading experience is a challenge, but in some ways it’s been superseded by other technologies now. I use comic book versions of some texts to help students engage and understand, and the visuals certainly help. But, at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to enable kids to be active readers of all kinds of writing. Comics are only one possible tool in the box. Not all teachers understand the form, and not all know how to use it either, but I think in some areas they are used quite well – the success of Classical Comics is a case in point, as they still sell well.
Thanks again for your time Jason, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Before I let you get back to your word-weaving and record-relishing, is there anything else you have coming up that you’d like to tell the reader about?
My main focus over the next few months is hawking ‘Amnesia Agents’ around various cons: I’m doing Birmingham ICE in September, Nottingham in October and True Believers next February at the moment. There may be more. My next issue of Commando, called ‘The June Winter’, comes out in December.