THE WRITING OF SPEECHLESS THE BOOK


Part 2: GETTING A PUBLISHER & STARTING WORK

The first time the book concept emerged into the daylight was while I was pitching a street theatre prop idea to Friends of the Earth International. That deal came to nothing, but afterwards they asked what other ideas or projects I might have up my sleeve... and that set the ball rolling.

As all the ideas that had been simmering on some mental back burner over the years came spilling out.

That was motivated in part by the urge to prove that it could actually be done. It's something I never really doubted, but would it have any real meaning or value to the reader.

SPEECHLESS at this time was just a really strong concept in my head; the population of a miniature earth, running around hitting each other with sticks and lobbing rockets into the sky.

My gut feeling was that this idea, properly developed would force the reader to view our own world afresh. And hopefully give them some poignant laughs and even a bit of a history lesson.

I reckoned that by doing without text, the visual messages about human behaviour would create a stronger impression on the reader. Actions speak louder than words.


The Pitch

Here's the original description of the project I sent to Janneke Bruil at FoEI.

Looking again at that 'pitch' document, and how very basic it is has reminded me how much kudos should go to them for seeing the potential of the project.

After that proved popular it seemed logical to approach New Internationalist Magazine, the people who launched my cartoon career, and the publishers of my previous book 'Big Bad World: Cartoon Molotovs in the Face of Corporate Rule' to try and get them involved, which resulted in a pretty quick 'yes'. By now I was starting to feel quite optimistic...

My choice of editor at the NI was screamingly obvious, as Chris Brazier (who's always been very astute at keeping my regular NI strip on the rails) had already written an amazingly compact history of the world, his No Nonsense Guide To World History, which time and again proved massively useful in organizing the script of SPEECHLESS.

In fact I'm at a loss to think how I would have even started without it as a guide... essentially he'd already done most of the historical research- my job was to 'translate' that into speechlessness..?


First Crisis

Perhaps the most interesting moment in the writing was when the plot literally split into two.

Without realizing it, I'd been writing myself into a dead end, assuming that the miniature 'one tree island' with 10 people living on it was capable of expressing the level of detail contained in the 'If the World Was 100 People' concept. It wasn't.

What became clear was the only format that could sustain the large book I'd agreed to produce was a miniature spherical earth complete with (at least vaguely) recognisable continents; particularly if we wanted to show history with a level of detail that could include gender, world war two, consumerism and so on...

But the 'One Tree Island' concept had immense charm and moral power, and was a clear favourite with everyone- yet it would have made for a very thin book. Here's the late night notes I scribbled to try and gather my thoughts:

Original notes re which version of SPEECHLESS to draw

What to do? What to do?! Which book to draw?!

When you desperately want a project to be as good as you can possibly make it, it's really difficult to make these choices... you become really worried that the wrong decision early on could kill the finished thing dead, and it's easy to start to feel that you're the LAST person who should be allowed to make the decision. In classic 'can't see the wood for the trees' fashion it took ages for the penny to drop, and it was quite probably the mind altering recreationals that helped finally dislodge the coin?

It feels really odd to look back on what an unpleasant experience it was, fretting over what to do about this (imaginary!) dilemma, when (with hindsight) the answer was so obvious:

DRAW BOTH OF THEM!


Can I do this?

This new approach meant having to (nervously!) 'resell' the whole concept to NI and FoEI. And find out if technically it was even remotely possible / economical to have a 'book within a book'.

A trip round a bookstore trying to find an example of someone else having successfully done this drew a blank. Fortunately my editors made yet another top quality call and went for the idea... and Fran, the NI's production manager, astonished us all by saying a 'book within a book' wouldn't raise the cost by a prohibitive amount...

Original sketch showing the two books concept for SPEECHLESS

It might have been at this point that a feeling started to creep up on me that the book was writing itself, and that my role was just to stay sober enough to move the pen around. Or at the very least a feeling that my subconscious was on MY side... either way, solving the 'which book to draw' made for an extremely intense high, and the realization that actually producing this thing was gonna be something of an emotional roller coaster ride...

Early on I produced a few sample panels to try and prove it could actually be done... (one of these panels made it almost unaltered into the final book, becoming the top half of page 32)

Original sketch of Columbus scene from SPEECHLESS

And suddenly it was time for the work to begin... which entailed endless pages of notes and very basic sketches. Often the ideas flowed best at night, which meant I ended up making a very basic portable drawing board so I could carrying on working without getting out of bed during the many, many 'can't sleep for having ideas' nights. (I feel the need to write rather than type ideas. I'm not sure why... it just seems so much more real when you write..?)


Things get rough

I've always loathed producing roughs, but a project this experimental was obviously going to have to have drawn 'test' pages that were as close to the finished thing as possible, to see how people reacted to them.

It's not as if you can write a 'script' for a comic book with no words... And of course when you do a project this unconventional, there's always the possibility that it's only in your own head that it makes any sense whatsoever.

Having drawn my way from dinosaurs to ancient Rome, I did a first (somewhat drunk!) run through with two mates who live in my housing co-op, the end result of which was two miserable days sulking in bed, nursing my wounds and wanting to curl up and die.

Day one was mainly a hangover, day two was "What the fuck am I gonna do now?! The book is shit! I thought I could do it, but it's all in my head and it's shit. Shit, shit, shit, I've fucked up and I wanna die. And throw up."

The comment that really stung was "this feels like a boring history lecture". And like many a criticism what really hurt was the fact that I knew it was true. What the hell was I gonna do now?

Fortunately recreationals came to the rescue again, and after a bit of trippy hippie bullshit internal dialogue about "time being a circle, man" another penny dropped... begin the book in something like the present day, and move to the transition between the big 'outer' book and the small 'inner' book as fast as possible.


That way the 'reader' character, having been presented with a miniature history himself (he's reading it on the toilet, he's definitely a he) then begins thinking about the history of his 'own' world... or is it our world... even I get confused about that one... plus the whole thing gained a very interesting twist, since the main narrative could now be seen as happening entirely inside his own head... or the readers... very solipsistic. (or 'Polypsistic'?!)

9 11 storyboard sketch

With 9-11 constantly being cited by the rich world media as the 'day everything changed' it seemed a very bold and provocative event to begin the book with... followed by a swift 'pullback' to show the day of 9-11 in the context of the problems faced by the majority world every single day... although this decision caused all kinds of debate and anxieties later down the line...

Meantime, the moment arrived to 'test the water', and see if people actually 'got' the concept...

PART 3: Reviews, Edits & Deadlines

PART 1: Origins & Influences