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How did you manage the collaborative process of one of you writing the text and the other providing the illustrations?

Eugene: I write some stuff, usually (though not always) with suggestions as to how it should be depicted graphically, we sit down together and talk it through, and have some more ideas about visual representation then. Occasionally we'll also mail one another with suggestions. It works. We've not had any rows yet. This is something we get asked about quite a lot. I think most people have the impression that "artists" (and I use the term very loosely in my case, and not at all loosely in Simon's) are big egos and big, individualistic talents who can't work with other people. I think that's one of the biggest misapprehensions that people have about creativity. Sure, painters and poets and novelists usually work alone, but collaboration is actually very normal – essential, even – in a lot of other fields, such as songwriting, filmmaking, scriptwriting and comics. If you and your partner respect one another's abilities and strengths and you're on a similar wavelength, it works. I can't vouch for the quality of the finished product, but all I'm saying is that we have an excellent working relationship.

Simon: For me, the collaboration element is one of the biggest attractions of a project like this. The arrival of a new chapter is always eagerly awaited, and the conversations with Eugene are peppered with insights and little known historical facts which leave me a little giddy. Also, he writes great visual gags which I get the credit for! One important part of our process comes later, when I send a completed chapter to Eugene by email. This has led to a number of useful suggestions and corrections to the artwork which I can implement before the whole book is proofread.

What were the particular challenges you faced in producing The Bristol Story?

Eugene: Fitting it all into 200 pages without filling each page with nothing but words... Avoiding the temptation to try and explain everything with maps... Trying to establish what people and places looked like... The nagging fear we've gotten something horribly wrong...

The period during which Bristolians traded in and exploited African slaves was also a difficult one to handle well, if only because of the present-day context; I've lived in Bristol since 1981 and knowing what I do of the city's history I would say that it's more contentious right now than anytime since the 1830s. But all you can do there is present the facts as coldly as you can and then invite your readers to make their own judgements over that thorny question of whether or not present-day Bristol should 'apologise' or admit guilt, or whatever.

The worst thing, the very worst, has been the bloody Reformation. It dawned on me with increasing horror that the religious knowledge that most people my age take for granted no longer exists among the majority of people under 30 because only a minority are regular church-goers and most have acquired no knowledge of Christian theology beyond a few RE lessons. So you then have to explain what monks and nuns and priests and friars and bishops are, and how people were prepared to burn other people at the stake over the question of whether or not a Catholic priest has the power to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Once we'd done that bit, the rest was easy by comparison.

Simon: The amount and depth of research has been challenging – with the Brunel biography it was a relatively short time period covered but The Bristol Story has meant much deeper research in order to maintain historical accuracy with costume and artefacts.

What have been the most useful sources of information to you?

Eugene: Once you start looking, it's actually quite humbling to find there are actually loads of local history books, some of them very good. There's a tendency to think that what's in local bookshops or in the library is everything. It's not. That said, most of the general histories do tend to stick to a rather standard-issue narrative and for that reason I'd say the best is still Derek Robinson's Shocking History of Bristol more recently reissued as A Darker History of Bristol because although it doesn't cover the whole story, it's a passionate attempt to break out of civic complacency and it's been in the shops for over 30 years. Bristol: a people's history by Peter Aughton is also still in the shops and is a very good (and nicely illustrated) general history. There are also loads of wonderful volumes from Redcliffe Press on various specific aspects of Bristol's story, which we've used a lot. [see the Activities and Resources page for further details of these and other books].

One of the most surprising aspects of the research has been the way in which the academics are producing a lot of superb and specialised work which doesn't always make it into print beyond journals and papers. I have a strong feeling that it's time that someone now produced a big general history that takes maximum advantage of all that new research, some of which turns a lot of received ideas upside down.

A lot of people have been very helpful, ranging from several academics (particularly Madge Dresser and Peter Fleming at the University of the West of England and Evan Jones at Bristol) through to many people in the Museums Service as well as several amateur enthusiasts. Again, you find out that actually there are an awful lot of people out there who care passionately about local history, and many of them have been incredibly generous with their time and expertise.

The web is useful for the quick look-up. There is quite a lot of Bristol material out there, but you don't always want to trust it. It really comes into its own for the picture research, either specific individuals, or just in getting a sense of what certain types of ship would look like or the sort of clothes people would wear.

There are lots of useful places, apart from the obvious museums and such. I think it's essential to bring information and places together and I've actually taken my children on traipses around the city centre ('shut up, this is educational') and told them all manner of wonderful stories about St Mary Redcliffe, or Temple Church, or the Blitz which they will thank me for in years to come, yes they will, even though they're currently only interested in how many more boring things do they have to look at before they get an ice-cream.

Simon: About half of the picture research has been done using images sourced from the internet and the rest from books– from my own and Eugene's collections, from friends who are specialists in particular areas (for example, fashion history) and from local libraries. On a couple of occasions it has been necessary to go off "on location" to photograph local sites, for example, effigies in local churches. Bristol City museum continues to be useful, particularly the map mezzanine and the Braikenridge collection.

What are the advantages – and potential pitfalls – of using a graphic-style format?

Eugene: Advantages:
It's easier to engage readers of all ages. Though we've always thought of this as something aimed at secondary school age kids, I hope a lot of grown ups will look at it as well.

You have an unlimited special effects budget. You can do anything you like in a cartoon. You can illustrate all the events you're talking about, if only from imagination. You're not limited by the photos and paintings that are available.

It's easier to use humour. By which I mean if something obviously silly is happening in the picture, the reader knows you're trying to be funny. This doesn't always work when you're using just words.

You can explain quite complicated facts and ideas graphically. Though usually only after causing yourself an immense amount of tiring brain work.


You've got to do twice the research. Not only do you need to find out what happened, but you have to find out what it looked like. This means you've got twice the opportunities to get it horribly wrong.

I suppose that there might also be a danger that readers don't take the thing seriously, but I'm not sure about that.

Simon: For me the combination of words and pictures is far greater than the sum of its parts. It's like the difference between talking to someone on the phone or having a face to face conversation with them. The pictures provide the facial expressions and body language which enhance the spoken words so that you can convey your message more clearly and with fewer words. To take a long view on this technique, Bishop Odo of Bayeux may have commissioned the tapestry because the majority of people couldn't read but the reason it holds its fascination for later centuries of more literate viewers is the combined power of words and pictures working together. A more recent figure in the history of comics and one of the twentieth century's greatest practitioners of the form, Will Eisner produced many comics for the US army using text and image to explain rifle-cleaning and other complex subjects in an easily understood way. This 'double-barrelled' effect can be subverted for humorous effect with the picture in ironic counterpoint to the words, a practice that dates back at least as far as Gillray or Hogarth.

There are a few practical disadvantages on the production side. It takes longer to draw a pageful of illustrations than it does to write a page of text (generalising dreadfully), similarly it takes longer to design a page of integrated images, speech balloons and captions whilst preserving the narrative flow, than it does to layout a page of text. If you look at it from a Gradgrindian perspective of number of facts per page, then you could squeeze more facts in using unadorned text (preferably in a tiny typeface) but then you would end up with a textbook that few would read and even fewer would remember.

As Eugene says the need for visual research material is a pitfall. The centuries of Bristol's history have caused more problems in this area than the decades of Brunel's short life. Fortunately for me, Eugene has continued to do more than his fair share of visual research, which has helped enormously and I've also benefited from Mel Kelly's picture research, just as I did for Brunel. The big ace up my sleeve this time has been having my wife Julia on board. Julia is a trained fashion designer and her contribution to costume research for the book has been supremely useful.

What have been your particular favourites of the Bristol events and people that you have been included in the book?

Eugene: Too many to list, but here's a few... Until we started work on this, I'd not realised quite how amazing the city's medieval history is. All that stuff about the Knights Templar and the various occasions the Castle features in the big dynastic wars of the time. So we've got lots of that in. The bit I like most from this period is John le Taverner's revolt against high taxation, in which Bristol effectively held out as an independent city state for a couple of years.

At the time of the Reformation I love the story of Sir William Sharington, a horrible sleazy crook who did very well out of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was running a mint at Bristol castle, turning gold and silver plate and ornaments seized from the monasteries and churches into coin. He raked off a load for himself and then started issuing underweight coin, an offence which could have gotten him executed (for potentially destroying the national economy) but he got away with it because he had influential friends at court. I adore the part the Quakers and Methodists play in Bristol's story.

Everyone says it's about the religion, which it is, but what they also did was give working people structure, discipline and self-respect in their lives. In their very different ways, these two sects, and other nonconformist religions, not only helped working class people out of lives of chaos and poverty, but they also created a new and hungry middle class which challenged a corrupt and often incredibly complacent ruling oligarchy which pretty much ran the city without much interference from London. And of course they also played a major part in the campaign to abolish slavery. While we should not downplay the horrors of slavery by slapping ourselves on the back over abolition, and we should not downplay the part that many slaves themselves played in ending it, the Quakers and other nonconformists do provide the consolation of knowing that a lot of people knew it was wrong and risked their lives to try and stop it.

My other favourite episode is World War Two, if favourite is the right word for a period of such horror. The fact is, Bristol's public memory of that six years is astonishingly opaque. Some 1300 people died, thousands more were scarred physically and psychologically, often for life. People fought for places in caves because the public shelters were inadequate. Black and white American soldiers rioted on the streets... And yet Bristol has always behaved as though none of this happened. The memorial to the Blitz is a little plaque on a bombed out church in Castle Park. That's it. Now partly this is down to wartime censorship, and partly I guess because none of it got written into the national mythology, like Coventry or the London Blitz, and partly also because people doubtless wanted to put the period behind them. But it's a fascinating period which explains how so much of Bristol got to be the way it is today. Also, the friendly welcome Bristolians extended to the large numbers of black troops here is such an interesting and instructive episode in the city's very complex history of race relations. [Read about the Blitz in the Bristol at War story on The Siege.

What we've also done is included a lot of local myths – you know, the obvious stuff about the blanket being invented by a Bristolian, or America being named after a Bristolian and some less well-known myths as well, like the hundreds of Black Death victims buried somewhere under Broadmead.

Simon: Bristol's endurance of Edward II's three-year long siege was a pretty amazing episode. I have enjoyed drawing the villains, and there are so many villains in Bristol's history!

Why do you think it is important to learn about the past?

Eugene: I'm not sure if we can actually learn anything at all from the past.

If you look at the way in which history is taught in schools in this country and virtually every other country in the world you can see how it's basically the creature of the fashions and political priorities of the time and place it's being taught. I personally have a huge problem with the way in which so much secondary school teaching has defaulted in recent years to the Nazis and the Holocaust. Important though this period is, I think it's been co-opted as a "safe" subject which can be returned to again and again, because nobody in their right mind can possibly argue with the evil of the Nazi regime and the rightness of the Allied cause. But in my experience this same teaching has ignored a lot of complexities of the period (I reckon two generations of kids have grown up now thinking that Neville Chamberlain declared war in 1939 in order to save people from persecution). It also means the exclusion of a lot of other, more interesting and relevant subjects. For instance, a lot of blimpish types say they'd like to see more about the British empire being taught in schools; so would I - it would explain to city kids why so many of their classmates come from different religions and cultures to them.

Most of all I am disturbed at the way in which schools spend so little time drumming chronology into the kids, preferring to focus on projects. Chronology is one of the foundations of the real usefulness of history. The discipline of looking at cause and consequences. Inquiring into what actually happened, how it happened, and why. That's where learning about the past comes into its own, as a methodology which you can carry over into any workplace. But the point is that different people will draw completely different conclusions. That's why I think there are very few things the past can teach us really. You can say that Saddam Hussein is the new Hitler, or that the 9/11 attacks on America were the modern equivalent of Pearl Harbour, or whatever, but others will disagree with you, for equally valid reasons. Or many people say that history teaches us that religion is the cause of all wars and persecutions, while others say that without religion, things would have been even worse. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

So actually apart from the very useful (and enjoyable) skills and disciplines that the actual study of history gives you, all the rest is one great big mess of adventure, romance, sex, violence, greed, depravity, bravery, cowardice and bad fashion sense. And of course loads of really interesting people. That's the fun of the past.

In terms of a history of Bristol, it's wonderful to have the chance to take a real good look at it for oneself, to talk to all manner of experts and hopefully to enthuse some people, especially youngsters, about the story of the place where they live.

And who knows what sort of benefits might accrue to the old place in years to come if we had a few more initiatives like this to show kids what an intriguing place it is, and how many romantic, mysterious and terrible things happened to their ancestors? Does history teach us that civic pride is a good or a bad thing? Can't see how it can be bad, unless we decide to invade and conquer Keynsham.

Simon: You only have to look at the actions of recent dictators to see the power of the past. The suppression or distortion of history is vital to the success of Stalin, Pol Pot and countless others. A population that knows its history is far more difficult to manipulate than one that thinks only in the present and future. You'd have to be pretty suspicious of any government that doesn't encourage learning from the past. I don't know much about how history is taught in schools these days, but it strikes me after working on this book that it should be a compulsory subject. Every child should grow up knowing where they come from.

What other projects would you like to collaborate on?

Eugene: We're likely to be doing a graphic biography of Darwin, similar to one we did for Brunel for the Brunel 200 celebrations. There is talk of us doing something for the 100th anniversary of aircraft manufacture in Bristol. Other than that, I'm not sure. We have vaguely talked about other graphic history projects in the past, but I don't know. I've not mentioned this to Si yet, but for the Darwin biog I've been thinking quite hard about making it more of a traditional comic, in the sense that you tell more of the story with speech bubbles rather than big 300-word chunks of narration all over the place. I'd like to see where that takes us.

Simon: We want to do a graphic history of the Olympics. It's the only way an arts project will get funded between now and 2012! Joking. I haven't mentioned this to Eugene but I'd really like to do something shorter with him. So far we've done a 28 page online comic, a 96 page graphic biography and a graphic history weighing in at nearly 200 pages. If we carry on like this you'll soon be seeing our unique take on War & Peace. But I do fancy collaborating on something short and pithy, like a graphic version of Eugene's columns for Venue. There's a web comic serial with the unlikely name of Teaching Baby Paranoia by an American artist called Bryant Paul Johnson which I enjoy reading. He'll take three or four panels to recount a fascinating but usually obscure tale from history. A regular weekly or monthly series of short episodes is a format Eugene and I haven't explored together, yet.


The Bristol Story front cover

A page from The Bristol Story

A page from The Bristol Story

A page from The Bristol Story

A page from The Bristol Story

A page from The Bristol Story

A page from The Bristol Story

A page from The Bristol Story

A page from The Bristol Story

A page from The Bristol Story

A page from The Bristol Story