Garen Ewing – Interview with the creator of The Rainbow Orchid

This interview was first published on August 1st 2009.

Garen Ewing is the writer and illustrator of The Rainbow Orchid, a ligne clair-style adventure comic series, the first volume of which was published by Egmont on August 4th 2009. Garen kindly interviewed me in August 2008 and it was my pleasure to return the favour on the eve of his book’s publication.

I’ve (selfishly) focused our discussion on the creation of the book and the trials of writing, in order to get Garen’s take on the things that matter most to me. For details of Garen’s career, influences and publication history have a listen to Linda Wada’s comprehensive audio interview. To see how Garen creates a comic page, see his own elegantly-designed website.

David: Firstly, congratulations on having The Rainbow Orchid published! How did it feel to hand over what had been a long-time personal project to a big publisher like Egmont?

Garen: I felt quite confident in Egmont actually, and I think that’s largely down to Tim Jones, the brand manager, who I met with a couple of times first, along with my agent, Oli Munson. Tim is a comics fan himself and knows his stuff, and I just felt at ease that, with him in charge, I’d have my best interests looked after. There were some unknowns, and there still are – for instance, Egmont are known as a children’s publisher, but I don’t see my book as particularly a children’s book (though it’s perfectly fine for children) so it will be interesting to see what audience it finds – or what audience finds it.

D: What kind of changes did they ask for, if any?

G: As far as story and plot goes – none at all. Actually, I told them I wanted to make a few changes – mainly adding a couple of new pages to volume one. Peter Marley, the editor, has been very eagle-eyed with a few textual and dialogue queries and making sure things are consistent throughout, but having been an editor and writer myself, and then with my wife being a magazine editor, by the time it gets to Egmont it’s really been through the word-wringer! Peter did convince me to go the extra mile and get my Ancient Greek text absolutely right by hiring a professional translator, and I had some quite amusingly complex notes asking me to confirm the taxonomic group of the genus of so-and-so a flower, which served me right for trying to be so clever in the first place.

D: Ha! But it must be great to know you have that authenticity with the language when you look at the level of research put into the visual side of things.

How hard was it to go back and make changes to work that had been done some years in the past? I think if I had to redo bits of Tozo I’d go bonkers, especially as it’s sometimes such a struggle to produce them in the first place.

G: I did go a bit bonkers! I spent every night into the early hours of the morning re-doing and re-thinking every bit of dialogue. As I was making the lettering a little bigger I had to move around some of the characters in various panels slightly, or make them a little smaller, and re-draw little bits of background. It did my head in. But in the end it was worth it – probably no one will notice the minute changes, but it’s made me feel better about such old work, and I do think several bits of dialogue are much improved. Thank heavens for Mr. Adobe Photoshop!

D: How has it influenced your creative process in the later chapters?

G: Going back to what I mentioned earlier, about Egmont being a children’s publisher, I did have a few wobbles wondering where I should aim things, and worrying about my use of longer words or too much dialogue – especially in volume two where things get a little more complex. But then I remembered why I’d started doing The Rainbow Orchid in the first place, for my own enjoyment, and that the only audience I should aim to please is myself. I got a publisher under those parameters so it would be a mistake to change that view, I think. If you write a story with some imaginary audience in mind, it waters down the vision and you end up trying to please too many different ideals. And anyway, children can look up long words and learn something new. Children across the land will soon know what a quidnunc is!

D: What level of ownership do you feel you have over the project now?

G: I feel as though it’s still all completely in my hands, which is very important to me. Contractually, Egmont has English language rights throughout the world, plus a few other subsidiary rights, but the copyright is mine, of course.

D: Are you pleased with the finished book?
G: Yes, it’s very nice. At first I was a bit worried at the idea of the spot varnish on the cover, but the designer, Faye Dennehy, reassured me and she was right – it’s the first thing people notice as they say “ooh… shiny!” And the colours and printing are all great too, so I’m very happy with it.

D: That’s good to know. How hands-on were you in the design and general look-and-feel of the book – you did the cover, obviously, but you also designed the logo too which is probably unusual? And you created the typeface used in the speech balloons – was that before or after Egmont agreed to publish?

G: Faye did suggest she might redesign the logo, and I was happy enough to let that happen – but in the end they went with the one I’d designed, and I was very glad about that – it makes it more mine. There was some talk about the fact that there was already an audience for The Rainbow Orchid online, and keeping some continuity of design would be good as it returns to book form. With the lettering, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages, for at least three or four years. I actually bought the software and made the font after I’d been taken up by Egmont, but it was the realisation that it was going into a bigger production that made me get off my derrière and actually do it.

D: What made you choose the particular scene that is being used for the cover image?

G: I offered a few different sketches for the cover, but my favourite – and theirs – was something from the warehouse scene. I think it’s just the obvious scene from the book really, it’s got the threat of the baddies and it’s a fairly simple environment so keeps the focus on the characters. Egmont did make the suggestion of making Julius Chancer bigger in the frame – I think my versions showed him from head-to-toe – as they wanted him established as the central character from the start. The cover for volume two was much trickier as the main action scene in that, I realised, is in a barn – pretty similar to the warehouse. In the end I had to pick a scene from the later part of the book that I actually haven’t scripted yet!

D: The setting of The Rainbow Orchid is the 1920s, which I believe was influenced by your interest in silent films of the period. Is it an era for which you have a particular affinity?

G: It’s a really interesting time, and I think it was reading Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By that really got me hooked. The world was just starting to close-in a bit more thanks to the wider accessibility of radio, easier international travel and mass communication, and I think it’s one of the first times when the younger generation really started to assert itself as a force to be reckoned with. Most stories I’ve seen set in the 1920s are American – they had prohibition and gangsters, the glamour of Hollywood, Jazz, flappers and ‘It’ girls, so it’s more glitzy. Britain reflected that to some degree but also had a heavier post-war burden and was facing the fact that the British Empire was no longer the mighty thing it once was. It’s an historical period and still has enough interesting connections to the Victorian era, but is also recognisably modern, so to be able to incorporate something of both those worlds is really nice.

D: You hired a translator for the ancient Greek so the detail is obviously important to you, but did you research the period down to the last detail or have you allowed yourself a bit of creative license?

G: When I first started the story I decided it was going to be a heavily fictional twenties, which was probably an excuse to be very fuzzy with the research. But the more I researched the more specific I became. There is creative license, and I haven’t actually mentioned a year in which the story takes place, though I now know it’s pretty much 1928 and I try and make sure everything fits into that. That meant making a few changes – for instance, on page 3 originally I had someone refer to the Taylor murder as a recent event, but that happened in 1922 so had to be changed. Now it’s going out to a wider audience I’m waiting for all the emails telling me where I’ve got little details wrong! Trying to find out simple things such as when zips and elasticated fabric came into general use has been a bit of a challenge.

D: As a result, how much time have you spent on research?

G: It takes up loads of time. Trying to find specific things from the 1920s can sometimes be quite hard – it’s easier now with Google images and more and more stuff going up on the internet, but a few years ago when I had to find reference for a 1920s Royal Mail van it took most of a day. Getting references for 1920s India – now Pakistan where the characters are – is even harder. At the moment I’m trying to find out about the trains of the Indian North Western Railway. There’s not much on the internet, and seeking out second-hand books is the only option, but rather hit-and-miss. I’m pretty sure that the trains that ran up and down the Indus Valley in the twenties were red, but I’m not 100% certain! It’s fascinating stuff actually, and you learn all kinds of strange and probably useless things, but it’s very time-consuming, especially when there’s deadlines involved.

D: I suppose the 1920s-30s was the last period where there were still undiscovered parts of the world and before any social/environmental conscience had properly developed. So it makes it an ideal setting for uninhibited exploration and adventure! Will you stick to this period for further Julius Chancer stories? Taking a guess at Julius’s age he could have a career spanning into the 1970s.

G: I’d like to keep it in the twenties, and if I go forward it can happily sit into the 1930s too. There were some wonderful adventure films made in the 30s that are a big inspiration – King Kong, Lost Horizon and the RKO version of She. I’ve even had a few ideas for what Julius Chancer gets up to in World War II, and I can always go back in time too.

D: I think you’ve said before that you had always wanted to do a Rider Haggard/Jules Verne style adventure story. Did you have a plot in mind or did the characters come first?

An example of Garen’s meticulous research – a Breguet 280T

G: The plot started to develop before I thought about the characters, then the two aspects went in fits and starts for a while, side-by-side. I loved the slow build-up of King Solomon’s Mines, and it’s only right at the end that a flavour of the fantastic comes into it, but I think it’s all the more potent for that – so I started with that as model, I think. I did worry that Orchid may end up being a bit slow-moving for modern audiences who are used to crashing in at the beginning and then something of a non-stop theme-park ride from up to the end credits. The Rainbow Orchid isn’t that.

D: It’s interesting that you have, at first glance, a group of characters that fit the classic adventure types – hero, comedy sidekick, damsel-in-distress, boffin – but in actual fact they’re all slightly different takes on those types. How deliberate was that?

G: I’m not a great original, I know that, but I think I can take something I’m very enthusiastic about and make it my own. My main influence for character is the film-maker Kurosawa, who has wonderful characters in his films whose attitudes and foibles actually shape the plot – they’re not just puppets reacting to outside events. So I hope I’ve got a little of that. Nathaniel is fairly stereotypical, as you say, a bumbling idiot – but I’ve made sure that he’s the one who comes up with quite a few solutions to various problems. And then there’s someone like William Pickle, a seemingly selfish reporter, but who reveals a kind of moral code when he states that he can’t be bought off, he’s actually dedicated to his art, which deserves some kind of respect. So yes, the characters, even though founded on well-known types, have always been quite strong in my mind.

D: It’s fascinating to see how much you’ve been influenced by film and film-making. As to whether they are original or not, I think it’s important to recognise that certain types of characters are necessary to drive certain types of story along. Also, in a group (and so far Rainbow Orchid has been an ensemble piece to certain degree) people will naturally adopt certain roles as the group dynamic sorts itself out (at least according to a number of boring team-building workshops I’ve been on!). I worry with Tozo that I’ve got so much plot that the character development sometimes gets left behind.

G: It’s a balancing act. As comic creators we only have so much space in which to move the plot forward, reveal character, be funny, show action and impart vital information. Tozo and Orchid are quite similar in that we both have quite deep plots, so the challenge is all the greater, but the rewards can be richer! I think you’ve got it spot on actually.

D: Do you allow your characters to grow as the story goes along or do you have those attitudes and foibles fairly set throughout?

G: They do change. Julius is all gung-ho at first and goes off despite Sir Afred’s concerns, but when he gets to India and realises the enormity of the task ahead, he wobbles a bit – especially when they all come quite close to death at the hands of Evelyn Crow. They all reveal new facets of themselves faced with adversity and in extreme situations.

D: I’ve always thought Julius to be an interesting character. Physically he’s not exactly Doc Savage or Indiana Jones (and he’s afraid of spiders!) but he has a real sense of justice and a terrier-like attitude when something’s got his goat. I think he’s probably the most original character so far. How did his design evolve? Will we see more of his background and will he get the chance to shine on his own? Is there anything of you in his character?

G: Heroes can quite often be the blankest canvas, so it’s nice of you to say that. You will learn more of his background in volume two and he will certainly get the chance to shine – especially in volume three. There are aspects of myself in every character I expect, but I probably do put more of myself into Julius – or my ideal self at any rate! I shouldn’t analyse it too much, but I can say I dislike spiders too and had to be very brave drawing that bit!

As for his design, I don’t really recall the process much – I knew I didn’t want him to be a big muscled thing! I noticed on Wikipedia someone has described him as ‘camp’. I think he is a bit effeminate in some ways, but that might be more the 1920s film-star looks, as his hair style came partly from an actor called Neil Hamilton, though also from a young portrait of J. B. Priestley – not that he’s ended up looking like either of them.

D: Neil Hamilton played Commissioner Gordon so there’s a nice little comics link there! If there was a film version of The Rainbow Orchid today who would you see playing Julius?

G: I just can’t imagine that, and I’m not really up on the young actors of today! Someone who wasn’t a big name would be good, I think. Naomi Watts would have made a good Lily, perhaps. And Cate Blanchett has already had a go at Evelyn Crow – in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull!

D: Is it fun to write for the baddies? I find it one of the most enjoyable parts as I can make them say the most terrible things – they tend to act as the mouthpiece for all my darkest thoughts (although I’d never say which thoughts are actually mine…). Evelyn is another interesting character – just how did she end up so bad?

G: I haven’t really fathomed Evelyn; she’s an enigma even to me. I get the feeling Urkaz Grope and Box both pale in comparison, but there’s a lot more to see of her yet. She is easy to write, so yes, that makes her enjoyable, but I also find her a little intimidating! What am I saying? She’s a figment of my imagination! Maybe you’re right about the dark thoughts…

D: If The Rainbow Orchid had been written in the 1920s then Lily would probably being screaming and tripping over tree roots a lot. When writing, how conscious of modern sensibilities are you? I find there’s always a part of my brain that is acting as ‘Equal Opportunities Monitor’ and I’m quietly counting the proportion of non-white faces in the cast and making sure that are plenty of important female characters. It annoys me a bit because I’m not a fan of positive discrimination as a rule but I recognise that you have to be responsible and ‘inclusive’ in your story-telling. How do you feel about this? Is it more difficult because of the time period in which the story is set?

G: Yes, and having worked for a couple of educational magazines I’ve been on the end of some fairly strict positive discrimination views, always involving much redrawing or post-production Photoshoppery. It’s kind of re-enforcing the prejudice if you point out a problem and want to ‘correct’ it, it’s like you accept it and want to overcompensate to hide it. As you suggest, Britain didn’t have the rich cultural mix in the 1920s that it enjoys today, and it would be wrong if I changed that just to be inclusive. Having said that, loads of people in the twenties smoked, and The Rainbow Orchid is a pleasantly but fictionally smoke-free world. Another area to watch out for is the political and religious issues surrounding British India, which I’m just keeping well away from.

D: Is Lily likely to be a recurring character in future Chancer Adventures? Is she a potential romantic interest?
Are the characters we’re seeing part of a fixed supporting cast or will each adventure have new faces around Julius?

G: Julius and Lily were initially conceived of as a double-act, both headliners, if you will. In the first draft of The Rainbow Orchid Julius was Lord Lawrence’s assistant, and it was he who went to the station to collect Lily and Nathaniel. So in my head they’re the two main characters, and Lily features in my early ideas for the next Julius Chancer adventure too. I do see most of the characters as ones that would have roles beyond Orchid in the tradition of most character-based comic series. As for romantic interest, well, we’ll have to see. Some of my female readers have demanded it, one of them by hand-written letter no less.

D: Is writing something that comes naturally to you?

G: I don’t know – mostly it seems quite hard. I love plotting and find that the nicest bit, so maybe that comes easily. I really work at dialogue, writing and re-writing. As you know very well yourself, the thing with comics is you have a space limitation, so that’s probably normal. Everything about making a comic is hard work, it seems, though very rewarding when the completed page emerges. I get the feeling if I was a natural I’d just breathe out pages one after the other, and I don’t think that’s ever happened!

D: Are you more comfortable with writing comedy or the more serious scenes?

G: I find comedy very difficult and there isn’t a huge amount of it in Orchid. Also, because I love silent film comedy, a lot of my favourite funny stuff is just straight slapstick, and Hergé did that so well that I’m worried the comparisons would be accusatory. But I don’t know, I just decided to relax about that a little and had Nathaniel falling onto his backside from an elephant. I don’t know if you find this too, but when I write something I think is really funny, by the time I’ve thought of it, scripted it, re-written it, fine-tuned, it, analysed, drawn and re-written it again for balloon… the chuckleness of it has evaporated somewhat.

D: Yes, that is true! I remember James Turner commenting (perhaps not very seriously) that his method is to throw so many jokes at a situation that at least one of them is bound to stick. That’s an approach I tend to use when I’m doing my minicomics, whilst in Tozo there’s a bit of slapstick and a bit of character-based humour. I think it’s probably the hardest thing to write.

So far the story has been a race to find the Rainbow Orchid, but there are hints that the orchid has other properties beyond being merely decorative and that we’re heading into the realms of fantasy or science fiction. I’m intrigued as to how a flower can be made to have this kind of dangerous potential.

Do you see Julius Chancer adventures all sharing that element of the fantastic or will they be more grounded?

G: I’d think they would all share some element that is unusual to a greater or lesser degree, though grounding that in as realistic a world as I can is what I really enjoy – just so any fantastical elements have a greater sense of wonder when they are encountered. At least that’s what I’m hoping! As for the orchid, it is certainly something special but there’s a bigger story around it. A couple of reviews have speculated that the flower is a MacGuffin, and I think there’s something to that theory.

D: Do you worry that you’ll get bored of churning out Jules Chancer stories?

G: Well, the story has been with me since 1997, and I’ve known the ending since that time, and I’m still excited about it. I haven’t really allowed myself to get into any other projects properly and I haven’t felt as though I’m missing anything – it’s the Julius Chancer world I really love and feel as though there is so much to explore within it. I hope I get the opportunity to do more and see if I get bored of them! But I also sometimes think I may only do one proper piece of work in my life, and if that’s The Rainbow Orchid and I can then no longer write and draw, or am destined to get run over by a bus, then that’ll be fine – as long as I finish Orchid first!

D: So you never think: “After Rainbow Orchid, the world!”? It’s your masterpiece and your ambition (happily) stops there?

G: It is the most important thing I’ve ever done. My ambition would be to do an even better story for the next one – I’m not one for experimenting and pushing boundaries in Art! I feel very comfortable with Orchid – it’s really really nice it being published by Egmont and it going out to a wider audience, I’m supremely lucky, but if I had to self-publish it, I’d be just as happy. I highly doubt this is going to make me lots of money, so it’s the creative rewards that are the important bit. I honestly feel that, but I get doubtful looks from people if I say it, and people think I’m being falsely modest! Maybe it’s because I’m older and it’s taken a long time before a publishing deal materialised.

D: What about Charlie Jefferson and the Tomb of Nazaleod that you recently did for the now-folded DFC? Also, any news on whether Charlie will ever appear in print?

G: I’m not sure about Charlie Jefferson. I struggled with it and there were a number of reasons for that. I think The DFC wanted a strip like The Rainbow Orchid, not the same obviously, but it was close enough in genre that I felt it wasn’t something totally brand new. I actually had a time-travel story that I really wanted to do, but they wanted to save that for later. But again, I think CJ had a really good ending, and I’m still dying to do those final scenes in it! I think it could well see print, but it’s out of my mind for now. I have a few vague ideas for other things I’d like to do, but I’m so slow I feel I should only concentrate on one thing. I’d like to do three Julius Chancer adventures, that would be my goal, then I’d be free to explore something else – probably the grounds of the nursing home I’d be in by then!

D: Do you still consider yourself part of the small press world?

G: I do, but I don’t think it’s reciprocated, and for good reason as I haven’t self-published properly in years! There’s a whole generation moved in to dominate the small press in a much bigger (and better) way since I last produced anything. I always did genre comics anyway, science-fiction and fantasy, which didn’t fit very easily into the bulk of the scene of the late 80s and early 90s when I was most active.

D: You could dash off a Chancer micro-adventure: 8 pages, A6 size, home-printed. Easy! And it would go down a storm. Your Forbidden Planet advert was effectively a minicomic.

G: I almost did one recently, for Stripwire, and Egmont okayed it as long as it could also be used to promote The Rainbow Orchid. Unfortunately I just didn’t have the time in the end. But Egmont would have a say in it as they have publishing rights in this country, and that includes me self-publishing anything – though I think I could do it, it’s all promotional and Egmont seem very open. It’s just the time factor for now.

D: Finally: you work at home – what kind of environment do you need to be most productive? Space, music, deadlines, things around you?

G: I’m really lucky to have a lovely work room all to myself. Sometimes I’ll take my wife’s laptop and work downstairs to be away from the internet, though I often need it to research various things as I’m writing, it can also be a rather slippery distraction. How do all those terrific comic artists produce so much work yet do so much Twittering as well? I can only listen to music while drawing, though actually I prefer to listen to people talking – podcasts, Radio 4, audio-books. It all goes off again when I’m lettering as I quite often re-write it a little at that stage and read the dialogue aloud. The burning fuse of a deadline is always useful!

D: I suspect there might be a couple of those fuses burning right now! Best of luck with the book and I’m looking forward to seeing volumes 2 and 3 next year! Thank you for your time.

The Adventures of Julius Chancer: The Rainbow Orchid Volume 1 was published on August 4th 2009 by Egmont. Available from bookshops, Amazon or Garen’s own website.