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A Conversation with Sarah McIntyre

Should anyone be this talented?  Philip Reeve talks to the illustrator, writer and comics-creator Sarah McIntyre about sheep, rabbits, the Saturn V rocket and how to avoid crevasses.

PR: So, who is Sarah McIntyre?

SM: Hi, Philip! I can give the easy answer: I work as an illustrator, and have three picture books under my belt since art college:  Morris the Mankiest MonsterYou Can’t Eat a Princess! and When Titus Took the Train. But more and more I’m writing my own stories for my characters, and the first to launch is a comic book called Vern and Lettuce, which is part of the DFC Library series of comics. It stars a sheep and a rabbit who live in a tower block in a neighbourhood very much like my own in south London. While Lettuce the rabbit is watching a talent-spotting show on telly, she suddenly decides she  wants to be famous, and scoots her best friend Vern off to the big city, despite his protestations that they need to work on getting a talent first.  They are both hugely inept at doing most things, but while reading, you hope that the strength of their friendship will help them survive in dark and dangerous places.

I got thinking about the more complicated answer to ‘who is Sarah McIntyre?’ while I was reading Fever Crumb and A Web of Air for the first time this week. Identity plays such a central part to the story, and sometimes all Fever knows for sure is her name.  Just as, in the book, Fever was packing her bags to leave her Order of Engineers, my dad was also clearing out his office and hanging in his badge to leave his own order of engineers,at Boeing, in Seattle, where he’s worked since he emigrated to the USA from Scotland, over 40 years ago. Dad’s identity is hugely caught up in his role as one of America’s leading aeronautical engineers and it’s not an easy thing for him to step out the door and lose that status, so he’s been on my mind a lot.  (Who is Mr McIntyre?) Both Fever and I grew up surrounded by engineers. My godfather was one of the chief engineers on the Saturn V rocket and, with his completely bald head, thick black glasses with tinted green lenses and fierce demeanour, he could have been straight our of one of your books. I loved him but he was a strange man. My dad’s best friend and colleague salvaged the wreck of a Mustang P-51 fighter plane which had crashed near Havana and rebuilt it to perfection in his garage. He had his 6-year-old daughter do some of the plane’s wiring because her hands were small enough to get into the gaps, and by that age, she’d memorised several of Winston Churchill’s speeches. Dinner parties were fascinating tales of war exploits and British politics. (I was always stricken with grief when too many children were present and I had to sit at the kids’ table.) But I was glad my dad never worked in Boeing’s military wing. One of his colleagues who lived down the street worked in what was called ‘The Black Hole’ and he couldn’t tell anyone about his work or where he might travel. My dad shared a lot about his work with me, but frustratingly I didn’t seem to have the right computer chip in my brain to grasp complicated physics and calculus. We did some great science projects together, though, such as building a working model of Foucault’s Pendulum in a gymnasium, using a fishing weight with a pencil on the end and an incredibly long rope to the ceiling. 

Besides airplanes, Dad’s obsessed with mountaineering and exploration, and made sure my sister and I were adept at ice axe arrests on steep slopes, and hauling ourselves out of glacier crevassas with Prussic slings. We each climbed nearby Mt Rainier with him and his climbing buddies when we turned 16; it was our proof to him that we’d reached ‘manhood’.  I owe a lot to my dad for giving me a strong sense of identity.  And A Web of Air reminded me of how I’ve been fed, doctored and educated thanks to the secrets of flight. On one hand, it’s hard science, but these guys imbue what they do with a certain romance, they’re passionate about their work, and with pushing the limits of what humans can achieve.

PR: I get very tired of hearing writers and artists defining themselves as ‘creative’, as if what your father and godfather did isn’t!  It’s hard to imagine anything much more creative or romantic than the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo programme.  Yet I remember reading somewhere that an extraordinarily high percentage of the American public believe the moon landings never happened.  It’s quite easy to imagine that in a few more generations nobody will believe it, and these vast achievements might be forgotten...  

SM: Yes! A Leeds-based friend of mine, Darryl Cunningham, recently made a comic strip about just that topic, called The Moon Hoax. He’s been tackling several controversial subjects, such as mental health issues, the MMR scandal and homeopathy; comics have been a great medium for telling the stories of the debates in an engaging way, and comics format is much more pleasant to the eye than a huge chunk of scientific text. Darryl’s had an overwhelming amount of response on the internet, hundreds of comments for every strip.  I think he would appreciate Fever Crumb’s argument that it’s easier to suppress truth with religion than with anything else. A lot of these people who argue with each other in his comments have strange religions, not necessarily god-based, sometimes even supposedly reason-based, but they have certain things they insist on believing despite all evidence to the contrary.  Linked to what we were saying earlier, I think it’s all caught up in identity. People want so desperately to have something they can call all their own and know for certain, and it takes a lot of maturity to be able to step back and say we don’t know everything. We want to make sure we’re securely roped up to other things we believe before we walk over those crevasses. 

The Dark Night of the Soul... Oh,
all right, it's a dinosaur on a swing.
I’m fascinated by accounts by Catholic contemplatives of a certain ‘dark night of the soul’. Sometimes I think it’s when the bottom drops out for people that they really have to let go of everything they believe, flounder, and then possibly grow. I saw it happen to my dad. Even though he was an engineer, he was quite up-tight and religious when I was little, didn’t want me to watch telly or listen to rock music. But when my little sister became a teenager, she unleashed hell on our dad and completely broke him, reducing him to a tearful wreck, night after night for several years. It was horrible to watch. But over the course of several years, my dad learned to let go, and his attitude toward religion changed, becoming much gentler, realising he couldn’t see the big picture in a way his God could, and accepting that love was more important than banging on about theological points. And he and my sister have a deep bond of understanding now and compassion for each other that’s very moving. …Sorry, this is all getting a bit heavy!

PR: Still, it’s a relief to know that you won’t be falling into any crevasses.

SM: True! But it might be good for me, the blue night of the soul. They are really very blue when you get down there.  I’m curious about you, Philip, was there anything that made you particularly interested in machines and engineering, or did they just fit well with an overall story you wanted to tell? 

PR: I never had any interest at all in machines and engineering, which is probably where things like Mortal Engines come from - when I looked at machinery I had no more notion of how it worked than would a mediaeval peasant; it might as well have been magic to me.  My books are full of cartoon contraptions, really.  The flying machine in A Web of Air is my first attempt at writing about a machine that could actually work, although I’m sure Mr McIntyre would find many faults with it!  On the subject of flying machines, I noticed a nice airship strip on your website...

SM: I can relate to that! I don’t understand most of the technology involved with aircraft, but I love the stories they evoke. Airship was a great example of that. My friend David O’Connell and I kept spotting the Stella Artois airship over London. One day I was sitting working at my desk and started daydreaming about the airship, and about 20 seconds later, it nudged its way past my window, as if I’d summoned it. Made my skin prickle! Often I’d be on my bicycle and I’d look up and there it would be, hanging over me.  I found its huge, silent approach both unsettling and strangely reassuring, and the airship started to take on mythical proportions in my head. When David and I decided to do a comics jam together, we chose the airship as our story’s starting point.  We usually met up at the Tea Pod cafe on Shad Thames, which, if you look up,  has a sky ceiling crisscrossed with lovely footbridges which date back to its old shipping days. We started the comic fairly autobiographically, then let it fly off into wild silliness. It’s one of the most fun projects I’ve ever done; every time I’d send off a new panel to David via e-mail, his follow-up panel would ping back within a day, going somewhere I never could have predicted. I love working collaboratively with someone who’s very talented but thinks completely differently than I do. It’s like my characters take on a real life of their own, and go on to have adventures where I’m only playing a part in them. It’s more like real life, where people can be encouraged in a certain direction, but never entirely controlled, and the joy is in seeing what they do with their freedom. 

PR: Final questions: What's next? Will there be more Vern & Lettuce books?  

SM:  I have a whole bunch of picture books lined up with David Fickling and Scholastic, and yes, one of them is a Vern and Lettuce picture book! I’m a bit apprehensive about starting another Vern and Lettuce comic in completely the same format because it was so hugely time and labour intensive. I’m weighing the idea of simplifying the comics format, maybe giving them something like four panels per page, a bit like Reflections of a Solitary Hamster by Astrid Desbordes and Pauline Martin. There’s no reason each page has to be so complex all of the time. I drew 8-12 panels per page because each page was a weekly strip for a magazine and had to be complete in itself, but if I was approaching it as a book, I’d let the story run much more fluidly from page to page. But I think it works well in this book, particularly for people who aren’t used to reading comics;  they can catch their breath between pages if they want to, even though there’s an overarching storyline. I’m too fond of Vern and Lettuce and their neighbours to let them go. They feel like family and I’d miss them too much. They all have complicated back stories and are hopping around in my head like children who really need a wee. I’m not cruel enough to keep them waiting like that for too long! Although if we’re talking in terms of long publishing timeframes, I think we may have a few little puddles on our hands before then. Poor little guys.


Brosencrantz said...

I remember you from The DFC! That was a joy, even though I was well out of the target audience. A real shame it folded.

Sarah said...

Hey, thanks, Jeremy! Yeah, we all practically cried when it went under. (You might remember the final issue cover with us all skydiving out of the airship.) Sad times.

But I'm really glad to see the comics get going again with the DFC Library books. There's some amazing stuff there, I sent Philip and Sam a copy of 'Mezolith'. Gosh! comics in London still have some signed bookplate editions on their shelf. Mezolith's already selling well in France, I hope it takes off here, too.

Brosencrantz said...

Good luck with it! I don't suppose you can convince James Turner to start doing Beaver and Steve again? I've kept him supplied with chocolate hob nobs at every convention I've met him at, but they don't seem to be working... he keeps just doing brilliant comics about not being able to do brilliant comics, which straight up confuses me.

Sarah said...

Haha, I don't think I could convince James about anything. He's one of these people who will smile and agree with you, and then do something no one would ever expect! I just hope he keeps making STUFF, whatever he makes is always gold. His 'Super Animal Adventure Squad' was amazing, I was so gutted when the Guardian pulled both our strips half way through their 12-strip run.

Matt Badham said...

What a great interview!

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