By Sandra Chesterman. Originally published in Gulf News, Auckland.
Its genesis was in a 2002 meeting between French writer Laurent-Frédéric Bollée and Auckland-based storyboard artist, illustrator and comic creator Roger Mason. Their graphic novel London Inferno, first published in French in 2003, is finally available in English.
They met at French comic festival Angoulême. Bollée, already established as a writer, had created a London-sited crime story, Roger was armed with a portfolio of his artwork, French publishing company EP Editions was interested and a contract followed.
London Inferno was Roger’s first book to be published in the French comic industry where bandes dessinées (comic books) are serious business and much loved. Their collaboration, with Bollée dictating plot and Roger drawing the panels and choreographing the action scenes, would also lead to two further books created by the pair (Mongo le Magnifique, EP Editions).
Years later, with London Inferno now out of print, they reacquired the rights and Roger went back to work on it. “I still had scans of the original artwork and I was able to give the artwork a bit of a polish. I translated the text and re-lettered it in English, redrew the cover, and this year, we signed a contract with Markosia. Now, hopefully, English readers will see the project I put a hell of a lot of energy into back in 2002. It also shows how I was at the time very much influenced by Frank Miller, comics like Sin City and artists such as Eddie Campbell.”
Drawn in black and white, the book is noir in style and theme: “Betrayal, intrigue and a violent quest for truth. London Inferno is Sin City meets Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and it won’t put you down until the end,” reads one description. “It’s drawn in Indian ink, brush, and dip pen on A3 Bristol Board, which is a lovely way of working,” says Roger. “It has immediate impact. Colour obviously is wonderful and enhances and helps to sell books, but I love working in black and white.”
With that project completed, his focus has returned to his graphic novel The Mice – now a 20-year project. Destined to be 350 pages in length, it’s “a science fiction story in the style of 2000 AD comics – so science fiction with a bit of a twist and a sense of humour. I’ve done about 300 pages and along the way I’ve promoted it. It’s visible – parts of it were published a few years ago in England and can be read on my website.”
Comics are time-intensive and finding the time to work on them is not easy. Like most comic creators, Roger makes his living in other ways. A 2020 UK survey of over 600 comic creators initiated by graphic novelist, writer and illustrator Hannah Berry and funded by Arts Council, England, British Council and the University of Dundee, found that 87 percent relied on income from another source. Professor Chris Murray from the University explains. “The comics industry in the UK is full of enthusiastic creators who put a huge amount of labour and love into creating comics but struggle to make a living from this work.” Production time was one of the reasons cited by respondents. Waiheke Island-based for two years now, Roger sees the situation as being much the same in this country. “At the moment I do storyboard work and illustration for clients in London and I’ve been doing some teaching at Auckland’s Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design, so I make a living as an illustrator and my comic work tends to be on the side.”
Insecurity over the industry’s future business model is also a concern. “The internet,” he says, “has taken down the goalposts and thrown them away.” Video games, free computer games, and animation are among the competitors for the audience’s time.
“The Mice is a lot of work and I’m not sure what reward it will bring. It’s a strange project and sometimes feels like a burden, but I’m committed to it. I’m writing the final chapter at the moment. It’s exciting and I want to know how it ends. I love the characters and I’m invested in it. But when I think of having to draw another 80 pages, the amount of work needed is phenomenal.”
Nonetheless he continues. “I get excited because in the writing process, strange things happen and new ideas come in.” That process involves scripting, creating thumbnail sketches for each page and then drawing them, often while travelling on the ferry or the bus from his island home.
London Inferno can be purchased from Markosia here: https://markosia.com/books/worlds-of-horror/london-inferno/
Sandra Chesterman is an independent art researcher and writer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org