Richard Calder

Richard Calder - novels
SFX interview

The House of Murky Depths, UK, 2009

Full, unedited version

SFX How did the graphic novel come about?

RC I’ve wanted to involve myself in a graphic novel project for some time. Comic-book style and technique have had a powerful influence on my novel-writing – the baroque characters, the hyper-kinetic action, the rapid-fire editing, and, I suppose, certain elements of camp that one associates with the over-the-top qualities of comics, have all found their way into my work. Dead Girls, the novel, is no exception, being heavily influenced, not just by comics, but by anime and Asian cinema, and to remake it in one or more of those media has, to me, always seemed logical. When I pitched the graphic novel concept to Terry Martin, editor of the quarterly magazine Murky Depths, he introduced me to the Filipino artist Leonardo M Giron, and I immediately knew he was the right person for the job. The collaboration has clicked from the word go. And the project moves on apace. Murky Depths will run the graphic novel as a series of episodes, beginning with issue #9. This will be the toned version. The completed graphic novel will be published in full colour.

SFX How have you gone about turning your original book into a graphic novel?

RC A few years back, an Australian production company bought the film rights to Dead Girls, and I was commissioned to write a screenplay. The film project is now defunct, but writing the screenplay got me thinking about how the novel might be re-invented, not just for film, but for a comic, or graphic novel. Transforming the screenplay into a series of comic scripts has meant condensing action and dialogue; fleshing out descriptions of scenery, props, clothes, and characters; and picture research – I supplement each script with reference images. Leonardo then organises the page layout; puts his own spin on angles and perspective; and unifies everything with his overarching, manga-influenced style. Once we’re in agreement on all the essentials – such as where text is going to be placed – he tones, and paints, the final versions. Voilà.

SFX Why did you decide to collaborate with Leonardo M Giron?

RC I wrote Dead Girls, the novel, in 1990, soon after taking up residence in Thailand. I was living in Nongkhai, a small town on the Mekong River, overlooking Laos, but making frequent trips to Bangkok. Nongkhai and Bangkok (along with London) are the story’s most important locales – and Bangkok is of special importance: it’s where the story really takes off. Leonardo lives in Manila, but his indigenous grasp of the ambience that Manila shares with Bangkok, and his ability to translate this into a unique, manga-like idiom, makes him perfect for delineating the cyberpunk exuberance and sheer down-and-dirty exoticism of Dead Girls. Leonardo is a mangaka, but one who uses manga techniques in a very original way. His work is, in my opinion, far more detailed, far more crafted and instilled with personal vision, than the manga most people will be familiar with. He weds an intricate attention to line and the kind of stylisations one normally associates with manga to something sketchier, looser, more expressive, as if the spirit-guides of, say, Shirow Masamune and Jesús Blasco, were simultaneously inspiring his hand. It’s a style rich in mood. He’s simply wonderful at rendering the atmospherics of Dead Girls in his depictions of the urban decay of a future, abandoned London, and – most especially – a mad, frenetic, hyper-real, future Bangkok.

SFX How does his artwork compare to the images you had in your head when you wrote the novel?

RC Leonardo has been true to the spirit of the original novel. By that, I mean he’s captured the novel’s lyricism, which essentially revolves around the dark, strange, and ultimately doomed love affair between two runaway teenagers: Primavera, a girl who’s metamorphosed into a half-human, half-robotic supergirl, and Iggy, her confused, somewhat geeky, human lover – a boy hopelessly addicted to the vampiric kisses by which her species infects human males and replicates itself. Leonardo imbues these characters with vibrant, toon-ish life, so that while remaining stylised – in the manner we expect of manga – they also present themselves as rounded individuals who grow, deepen, and become more familiar to us, with each episode.

SFX Coming back to the story after all this time, have you made any changes to the plot to reflect how the world has changed?

RC What changes there are – and indeed, there’re quite a few – are for the sake of lucidity, and a desire, perhaps, to create more action, rather than a desire, or need, to reflect changes in the world. Actually, the novel was, in certain respects, quite prescient, and dealt with many current political, social, and scientific trends that, back in 1990, belonged purely to the realm of speculation. For instance: Primavera and Iggy have, respectively, Polish and Czech surnames – Bobinski and Zwakh – due to the fact that the novel predicts a surge in East European immigration to the UK in the early twentieth century. Global warming is also referenced: rising sea levels have meant that Bangkok has been flooded and become a ‘Venice of the East’ bisected by a network of canals. The nanotechnology that underpins much of the novel’s speculations about robotics hasn’t been as forthcoming, though reproduction via viral nanomachines à la Dead Girls has since been used in other SF scenarios – most memorably, perhaps, in Star Trek episodes featuring the Borg.

SFX Have you found anything you wish you’d done first time out?

RC The novel and graphic novel are, in effect, two different creatures. They share the same bloodline, but they’ve grown up apart, born in different places, and at different times, to a different parent – a necessarily different parent, since these days I see the world from a perspective unlike the one I had in 1990. Adaptation always involves doing things differently, and Dead Girls the graphic novel represents a re-imagining of Dead Girls the novel. The characters, and the fictional universe they inhabit, remain essentially the same, but all else has been worked into something new that emphasises flow, clarity, and visual élan. The narrative of the graphic novel, for instance, is linear, while the novel works by way of flashbacks, and is far more digressive. The pacing differs, too: the novel clips along, but the graphic novel goes like gangbusters. And there’re scenes in the graphic novel that are completely new, and which I’ve created mindful of the old dictum ‘show, rather than tell’, or to provide a platform for action sequences, such as car chases or fights. Primavera, Bangkok’s prima donna of assassins, has many, new action scenes that showcase her murderous, ultraviolent talents.

SFX Would you like to revisit Dead Girls in any other capacity – eg as a movie?

RC I know that it’d make a wonderful anime, or movie in which some form of animation – whether traditional, or 3D – plays an integral part. The Australian production company I’ve previously mentioned were, in fact, in negotiations with Japan-based Studio 4°C and animator and anime director Koji Morimoto, probably best known for his work on Akira and The Animatrix. In many ways, Leonardo has adumbrated Dead Girls as film: his layouts have the look of lovingly detailed, colour-drenched anime storyboards.

SFX Can you see yourself turning the other books in the series into graphic novels, or will you stop at the first.

RC I may adapt my novel Frenzetta, not so much because of its plot – I have it in mind to create a somewhat different, open-ended, storyline – but because of its two central protagonists: Frenzy, a half-rat, half-human adventuress, and her companion, Duane Duarte, a seven-foot tall reanimated corpse, who, together, cut a swathe of sex and violence across the four continents of a decaying far-future earth. I’m also mapping out the possibilities of a story involving one man’s picaresque quest to escape from a colossal, and very strange, Piranesi-like prison. All in all, I see myself committed to graphic novels and comic books for some time to come!