A Thirst For Adventure
♦Philip Pullman is one of the best-regarded modern English writers whose fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials is a multi-awardwinning book series. He has become known for a deep intelligence in his work and this year sees him writing John Blake, a comic strip that has been running in children’s anthology The Phoenix since May and will be collected in a single volume next year. We spoke exclusively to him recently about John Blake, His Dark Materials coming to television and writing the companion to His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust. Interview by JOEL MEADOWS…
TW: Which comics did you enjoy reading as a kid?
PHILIP PULLMAN: The Eagle, like every other boy of my age. The Beano, of course, and occasionally the Dandy, which I never found as good. The Wizard, Hotspur, the Lion. Everything that was available. But the Eagle was the standard by which I judge all the rest.
TW: Did spending some of your childhood in Australia give you an outsiders perspective on British comics?
PP: Yes, certainly, because it was there where I first saw Superman and Batman, which I loved with a passion as soon as I set eyes on them. Also in Australia there was a newspaper that carried a strange little strip that I loved without understanding it, and it was only when thirty years later I came across George Herriman’s Krazy Kat that i realised what it was. Krazy Kat is sheer genius. No-one else has played so brilliantly with the comics form.
TW: What can you do in comics that you are unable to achieve with prose?
PP: Speed. Instantaneous undertanding of where we are and what’s happening. That’s the first thing. The second thing is counterpoint. We can see a character doing one thing, talking about something else, and thinking a third thing, and all the while know by means of the frame caption that this is a flashback. All those things at once. Prose finds that very hard to do, and only manages it fleetingly and partially.
TW: With comics and graphic novels now a major part of mainstream culture, do you think there is less snobbery about them than there was a few years ago?
PP: I hope so. I think so. They’re now being seriously reviewed in proper newspapers. There’s a body of critical expertise being built up.
TW: How has John Blake changed since you first created the series?
PP: The story’s got a lot tighter. At first I was making it up as we went along, with no sense of where the ending might be or whether there would be an ending at all. Now the story is very tight and disciplined.
TW: How did artist Fred Fordham come on board?
PP: The good people at the Phoenix suggested him. He was already drawing a strip for them, which I liked, because he could obviously draw.
TW: How closely have you collaborated with him?
PP: Not desperately closely. We’ve met once, and exchanged a number of emails and ideas as the story develoiped. But I trust him, and I know it’s in good hands.
TW: The graphic novel is being serialised in The Phoenix from this month. What do you think this lends to John Blake that it would lack if it was just published as a graphic novel?
PP: It would be nice if readers found themselves looking forward to the next episode. That’s all we can ask for, really.
TW: You wrote a strip for The Phoenix’s predecessor the DFC. How did you find that?
PP: I answered most of this in the question you asked about how Fred Fordham came on board. But just to add a little, although I enjoyed the sense of open-endedness, I’m fundamentally a novelist, and we do like a solid structure.
TW: In 2016, what is it about adventure stories that continue to appeal to readers?
PP: I think adventure always has appealed to people whose lives are not especially adventurous. There’s a sort of daydream quality to it.
TW: How would you describe The Adventures of John Blake to the reader?
PP: Blimey. I’m a storyteller, not a publisher, or a critic, or a bookseller. I haven’t the faintest idea. It’s an adventure story.
TW: You have a fascination with religion and religious zealotry. How does this feed into John Blake?
PP: Not at all. This story doesn’t touch on that subject.
TW: What are the pros and cons of writing comics compared with writing prose?
PP: It’s much quicker! Speed in general is what I love about comics. Of course, the artist has to take time to draw the pictures, but when we read we take them in at once. And all the writer has to do is put down the words ‘A storm is gathering on the horizon’ and the artist has to spend a long time with shapes and colours to make it look right. When you’re writing prose, you have to do all the picture-making yourself by choosing the right words and then (most important) knowing when to stop.
TW: His Dark Materials is coming to television courtesy of the BBC. How closely involved have you been with this?
PP: I’ve been closely involved from the beginning. It’s a much longer project than making a single movie. The producer consults me about a lot of things, especially the script, which the very talented Jack Thorne is writing. I’ve had a number of discussions with him and with the designer, too, because I’m keen to get a consistent look for the thing, so that we can see we’re in a different world—but not too different. When we start to discuss casting, I have a number of suggestions I’d like to make as well.
TW: You are working on the Book of Dust, a companion to His Dark Materials. How is that going?
PP: It’s going fine. But it’s a long book, and I’m about two-thirds of the way through, so there’s quite a way to go yet.
John Blake is running currently in The Phoenix weekly and will be released in a collected edition by David Fickling Books.