How did you
manage the collaborative process of one of you writing the text
and the other providing the illustrations?
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
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
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,
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].
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.
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?
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
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
What have been your particular favourites of the Bristol events
and people that you have been included in the book?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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,