I'm not sure many people would decide to make their graphic novel debut by creating such an epic story with such a huge ensemble cast. What sparked the idea and was it daunting to take on?
I know, it's kind of a lot. I think it helps that the project didn't remotely start as a graphic novel. In fact, at the time I was planning another comic entirely. But there came a point at which I had to choose between the two projects to develop. Biscuits started with a poster about feminism (and how it isn't simple) that I did for zine distro One Beat Zines. I immediately fell in love with the image and wanted to do more of them. I posted them on Instagram under the hashtag #3point52billion, because that is the approximate number of women in the world, and as such the number of ways it's OK to be a woman. Then I was going to do them as one-off, one-page comics to go with each cookie cutter and give a little sort of snapshot into the lives of these characters whose stories I had implied with the caption underneath. And it just grew and grew.
To enter the project for the Myriad First Graphic Novel Competition (and the LDComics prize before that) I put together a sort of pitch of where I thought the project could go, but until I won and suddenly had a book contract, I really didn't know what length it was going to be. It was daunting at times, but once I had most of the script written that first summer, it was a mountain that I at least had a map for how to climb.
What fed into that idea of short scenes and lots of characters?
I usually describe the structure to people by comparing it to Love Actually. The influences are broad though, I think, if medium brow. I love novels with fractured, time-distorting narratives like The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Biscuits is not temporally messy, but it does jump around a lot.
I also love things that give you small but potent glimpses into people's lives like Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton's photoblog and interview series.
Within comics, I love sweeping ensemble epics like Love and Rockets. In Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez's work so much of the story is told through dialogue and body language, I like how real that makes it feel. Dave McKean's Cages is another great example of a polyphony of characters, where each overlaps and gets their moment in the spotlight.
It's a book about London. What is your relationship with the city? Love? Hate? Indifference?
I love it. I've lived here since 2008, three years south of the river, nine north.
When I was at uni at Southampton Solent they used to hire a coach once or twice a year and bring us to the city to go to museums and stuff. I remember trying super hard on my outfits because we were going to London, and I had to look cool. But now I know you could generally wear your pyjamas on the tube, or full drag, or anything in between, and people wouldn't bat an eyelid. Londoners have seen it all, and it's all here, all mashed up and on top of itself.
That's not to say that people don't live separate and sheltered lives within the capital; there are a lot of different bubbles and communities, and there's so much I don't know about or understand. There are tower blocks right next to Georgian terraces and pawn shops next to hipster cafes, parallel populations living virtually on top of each other but scarcely mixing. I think that's really interesting. Also, it's just pretty; the buildings, the trees, the layers and layers of history.
One of the questions the book asks is whether London is a lonely city. What do you think?
Yes, it can be. As Hana points out right at the beginning of the book, it's not the norm to talk to strangers in London; in order to meet people you need some kind of excuse. Work, mutual passions, mutual friends etc. Dating apps, I guess. It's doable. But because a lot of people move to the city for a few years and then leave to grow up and settle down somewhere else, those social groups can be fleeting.
Also, when you meet people, they often actually live in another part of London. Too far to walk in lockdown, but even in the before-times, seeing your friends who live in the same city often meant an hour-or-more journey on public transport. Which is pretty mad. Communities grow into and out of each other and evolve constantly.
You have to build your own family where you find it, from the mix of people who you manage to connect with.
I love the rhythm of the book, especially those moments where you just stand still and observe. How easy was it to find that form?
Thank you so much. Getting the pacing right was the thing I was most determined to do, so I tried really hard. That said, the methodology was not straightforward. As the book evolved and grew, I had a number of different methods for tracking the structure - colour coded spreadsheets and graphs and numbered charts. I wanted to make sure there was a mix of tones and that the conflicts weren't all at once, while also preserving a relatively classic narrative structure.
Ultimately, the final decisions were made on instinctive feel. In the evolving script document, I had pages labelled simply as "buffer", where I knew I wanted to slow down and take a breath. In manga, a lot more of these would probably be location, or poetic point-of-view images similar to the way establishing shots are used in film. And some work like that.
But I also wanted to use more non-sequitur type images, to highlight the plurality of the experiences of the characters. Also, I just enjoy drawing mash-up pages and I thought they might sell well as prints, so, that was my excuse.
About those images of the scuzzier corners of the city. Did you draw them in situ, or did you use photographs?
Almost everything in the book is drawn from photographs, with certain changes made to the characters of course. But I don't tend to think of London as a city of scuzzier corners. Here the scuzz can often exist on the very same street as the posh, or at most a few blocks over. The infinite desire for real estate has gentrified so much of the city, but there's still a lot of communities rubbing elbows with each other – tower blocks or rundown terraces one block over from Georgian splendour or modern chrome. That doesn't mean the people actually talk to each other of course, or frequent the same establishments, but they are very much in the same space.
I live in Islington, which is very much poshville, but pictures like the stack of discarded market boxes or the broken sofa left in the street were photographed within a three-minute walk of our flat. The image of Jane and Alice walking through what looks like a pretty rundown area is one of the few pages taken almost entirely from one photo - and it's a photo taken in Bermondsey (also poshville).
As is only right in London, you have a very diverse set of characters. How did you "cast" the book? Who did you want to include?
While I was more consciously chasing diversity when drawing the original #3point52billion project, as they evolved into comic-book characters the process was more organic. Most of the cookie cutter images existed before their stories, I didn't know which ones were going to turn into bigger characters, and it wasn't particularly planned. I actually am a bit sad that I didn't end up with any East Asian characters with a story more than a page long – but this does at least show that I wasn't ticking off a list.
I went with the stories that seemed interesting to me, and that I thought would complement each other. Maybe in the future I'll have a chance to flesh out the stories for some of the cookie-cutter womxn that didn't get a chance this time around. Ultimately, this isn't a book ABOUT diversity, it is a book that contains diversity.
Susan is that rare thing in comics, a character in a wheelchair. It's just her and Charles Xavier. Oh, and Batwoman. (Or am I misremembering?)_
This piqued my "well actually..." muscles and sent me on a Google hunt, but it's hard to find much outside of superheroes searching that way. Apparently, it's Batgirl, not Batwoman, and she changed her name to Oracle whilst wheelchair bound. There's also a character called Harper in Archie comics who's based on Jewel Kats, a real-life person who also has an autobio comic. Niles Caulder from Doom Patrol is also in a wheelchair, Taina Miranda from Unstoppable Wasp is pretty bad-ass, and there's a character in a single issue of Spiderman called Turbine who has a solar powered hovering turbine bike. There's a whole lot in Manga, of course, but the databases that tell you that are less genre-biased.
A better question to ask might be, why don't we see more people in wheelchairs in the media generally? Like most issues of representation, I would imagine it's better than it used to be, and likely will never be as good as it should be. A lot of the time when we write characters we fall into either end of the "lazy assumptions" spectrum - assuming people are different to us and assuming they are just like us.
I'm sure I have fallen into both of those traps in Biscuits at certain points, because, of course, I don't actually know what it's like to be anyone other than me. But I've done my best. For Susan I read a whole lot about Osteogenesis Imperfecta, and most of it didn't make it anywhere near the book, because people don't actually tend to go around telling our life stories all the time.
Asking some of the questions the book asks: Do you want love that boils or stills the blood?
Both, of course.
You have two characters send each other, umm, toilet photographs? Tell me that's not really a thing.
You'd be surprised how many people have approached me to confess they have done this.
Which dystopian future would you most like to live in?
I'm with Rosa. Zombie apocalypse for me, every time.
What was your own route to comics? Were you always a reader?
There were Asterix and Posy Simmonds books in the house growing up, and then in my teens I discovered DC Vertigo trade paperbacks like Sandman in my local library and got into Rumiko Takahashi via watching Pokemon cartoons. Later, I fell in love with David Mack's Kabuki series and Los Bros Hernandez's Love and Rockets. Since I've been reviewing comics for Broken Frontier and The Quietus in recent years, and had a bit more disposable income to spend at small press fairs and local comic book shops, my reading is more varied, and my to-read pile way too big. Some recent influences would have to be Eleanor Davis, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, Kate Brown, and Cyril Pedrosa.
What do comics allow you to do that other media can't?
As a creator, they let me do my two favourite things, which is play with words and play with pictures. As a reader, I guess it's partly the same; you get to experience and appreciate the work aesthetically from both those directions. But, also, comics are something of their own, the reader sets the pace. You can slow all the way down and stare at a double-page spread for ages, or you can speed through and then come back to your favourite bits to check things. You can be so much more specific than you can in a novel (the old "a picture speaks a 1000 words" adage), while also giving the reader quite a lot of work to do, imagination-wise.
Comics have one huge advantage over TV, movies or games – budget! You don't need to scout a location, hire an actor or a crack team of state-of-the-art digital animators to create a believable setting, event or phenomenon, the limits are solely the imagination and ability of the writer/artist.
Hopefully, a lot of things in the long term, but in the short term a lot of sleep. I'm one of those people who always has more ideas for projects than time to do them, and there's also my day jobs as a teacher and illustrator to squeeze in.
But now I know I can make a whole graphic novel, of course I want to do that again. I have more than enough ideas for a Biscuits 2, but I'm not sure I want to dive into the intense workload situation that this book was again particularly soon.