Interview: Dave Turbitt

Interview by Claudia Massie
Dave Turbitt is the illustrator behind the new graphic novel, Dougie’s War. This is the first such publication to deal with the fallout from the current wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, with a script from acclaimed novelist and biographer Rodge Glass.
What kind of work do you usually do and how did you come to be involved with Dougie’s War?

For the last 5 years I’ve been working in a very commercially-focused environment, at BBC Worldwide in London. First in the kids DVD team and then in my current role approving and developing merchandise. So basically my day job is not massively creative, and for ages I’ve been looking for a project to develop and work on myself. In the mean time, I’d first met Rodge back in 2000 shortly after I left college. He was lead signer in a band in Glasgow, and responded to an advert I’d put up touting my services as a designer for music acts. He turned out to be the only “normal” person who contacted me, others wanted me to do multimedia DVDs for schools (unpaid) or copy pictures of Henrik Larsson for unlicensed fanzines (again, unpaid!). So ten years after I made artwork for the band, Rodge had become a published author and biographer. He phoned me up one day in June 2009, during a lunch break and offered me the chance to draw the graphic novel he was writing, and… (pause for effect) it was going to be a paid gig. Amazing!

Can you explain how the process of creating a graphic novel works? Are you given a set script to illustrate or is it the process more collaborative?

We made up our process as we went along, since neither of us had done it before. The first pages I drew were an audition piece, following a script Rodge had written for the first four pages of the book. At that point Dougie was an older veteran, but the homecoming storyline was already there. So I drew two of those pages, Rodge and Adrian (the publisher at Freight Design, Glasgow) loved them but in particular they liked the last frame of the first page, the empty pint glass. Rodge incorporated that into his next rewrite of the script. The whole pacing and storyline came from Rodge, drawn from interviews he had conducted with surviving veterans of conflicts of the last twenty years. Where we collaborated was on detail, a good example being Dougie’s friends, Fraser and Dunc. And there’s an odd way in to that. It started with how Rodge wrote the scene of the football match. It had descriptions of “thousands of fans” all “waving scarves” and other descriptions. Basically I freaked when I saw that, just this vision of drawing a crowd scene for about 2 months! So I did what any self respecting college trained animator/illustrator does – I cheated my way out! It gave me a good chance to focus on Dougie’s emotions watching the game and I could draw less of the crowd, and I realised there should be two guys flanking Dougie, old mates, maybe from the pub on the first page, and from the following page as he walks two, as yet unnamed guys, back home. I was still getting into the swing of drawing in my style at that point so I made a full page character study of Fraser and Dunc. I decided that every guy in Glasgow has at least one pal who’s about six and a half feet tall, and one who’s about eighteen stone. I was taking images on my iPhone and sending them off to Rodge for him to look over, and he warmed to the idea of the two mates. He then brought them back into the story at the end of Chapter Two, and we spend a couple of pages with them in Chapter Three. That’s one example but the whole process was very collaborative.

Dougie’s war is ultimately against his own memories and experiences as he struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Is this something you looked into in your preparations and what other kinds of research did you do?

Whereas Rodge had interviewed ex servicemen and PTSD survivors, I spent a few weeks watching a brace of documentaries on the subject – there seemed to be loads in Autumn 2009, mostly on Channel 4, so the timing was oddly synchronised. I found most of my inspiration came from looking at images online of conflict in Afghanistan, some taken by soldiers, and contrasting that with the world of Glasgow and the loud and proud drinking culture I still had vivid memories of. Thinking about downtown Kabul and then Sauchiehall Street, the jarring contrast of what Dougie was sent to Afghanistan to do, and then what he’s expected to do when he comes back. Which comes down to, “don’t be such a fucking poof come out and have a drink ya big gayboy”. All I could show of the situation was Dougie’s outer self, so that’s what I focused on. The script was so good it put me exactly at the places in Glasgow I thought it would happen.

You’ve always been a fan of comics and Rodge Glass makes reference to the influence of Charley’s War. Were you familiar with it before you began this project?

I’m still slightly ashamed to say I haven’t read it. I was too young when it was first published and it’s not cheap to get the whole collection now. The first time I met Adrian we spent an afternoon at his house looking at the old comics he had from his childhood, and there were a couple of books of the reprinted Charley’s War. It’s immense, quite daunting to think I was making a work patterned on these books, which were written by comics GOD Pat Mills. The amount of fantastic characters he’s created and worked on make my head spin! And also the artwork was just stunning. Too good! I decided then and there, I won’t read this till I’m all done drawing our book because the story Rodge is writing has to be it’s own thing, and I didn’t want to just be copying panels from the other  ” ‘s War”.

What other comics or graphic novels have influenced you as an artist? Did you ever read DC Thompson’s Commando comics as a kid?

I like to say “stolen from”, not influenced. And I stole from Watchmen, Calvin and Hobbes, Seth’s books, Jimmy Corrigan and a host of others. I never liked DC Thompson comics when I was younger, due to the smell of the print and feel of the paper. For some reason it freaked me out and I’d only read annuals, printed on a heavier paper stock. I’ve no idea why. Maybe my next book can pay for some regression therapy!

Your depiction of a certain kind of Glasgow life is very recognisable though quite subtle, using certain visual motifs to represent a community without making a caricature of it. Was it important to root the story in a specific community and what obstacles did you face in working out how to do this?

The script was written to take place in the south side of Glasgow, where Rodge now lives and where I grew up, so I had the whole look of that area embedded in my brain. I’d drawn scenes in sketchbooks before, of normal Glasgow citizens and the streets around there. I’ve also seen enough films, TV and art based on the area to know what I really didn’t like, that romanticised atmosphere of “Auld Reekie”, or even when people try to show “real” Glasgow in stuff like “Taggart” or the like. So I tried to draw it like it was just THERE. When I visited Rodge at the start of the process we went around Shawlands taking photos of the different locations he’d written in. We even chanced our arm going into the pub “the Georgic”. That’s a real pub, and had a real group of football fans inside watching a real Rangers game. So we stuck out like only two non-locals can! Later in the process I went to tools like Google Streetview to help me find locations we had missed, or which had been written in. I did the whole of Wootton Bassett that way, for the last chapter. Also, Rodge had written the script in “Glaswegian” dialect. I suggested it maybe looked a bit like we were trying too hard, and in the end I think having the script in plain English will hopefully help the book find a wider audience. Well here’s hoping so anyway

Have you had any feedback about the book from anyone involved in the armed forces?

Adrian and Freight financed the book by approaching the Scottish Veterans charity, and they have links to those serving in the forces. When we finished, Freight sent a pdf of the book to them to keep them informed, and the only thing they asked us to do was to include a bit more information in the foreword and afterword about the help that soldiers can find. The photographer, Nick, whose images are shown in the second half of the book, has served in the region recently and was very receptive and encouraging. He only pointed out one instance, our use of the word “jeep”, which was anachronistic. The reaction overall has been brilliant though.

How do you feel the graphic novel is received as an art form and as literature? Do you think the success of comics, such as Maus or Persepolis, which have a serious underlying subject matter has made it easier to produce this kind of work and endowed it with greater respectability?

I think this discusion comes up every time a “serious” comic is released. The success of Maus and the books that came after it (and Charley’s War, which came BEFORE Maus) have all depicted serious subjects, to varying degrees of commercial and cirtical success. If you look at Maus and Persepolis, there’s quite a lot of humour, defiant humour but none the less it’s there. They use the fact that they’re drawn as comics to appeal to the reader in a very immediate, personal way. Looking at the work of Joe Sacco (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde), his work in reportage is arguably more thorough than Spiegelman or Satrapi because he has less personal involvement in the narrative beyond the events he experiences, and the story is harder, less humour and more facts and stats. No less brilliant! These are all works that are likely to be on the shelves of broadsheet readers, even if the last comic they bought was the Dandy, and in that way I think the books have made the “serious comic about war” more respectable, if that’s even something we want to achieve. But I think the question will always be asked “are comics respectable” and that’s fine because it will always be a talking point. Really I think it’s the strength of “Dougie’s War”, we designed it to appeal to people who wouldn’t pick up a thick paperback about PTSD, and for people who probably don’t see comics as an “art form”.

Persepolis was turned into a successful animated movie which, along with the likes of Waltz With Bashir, has facilitated a new appreciation for the scope of animation, redefining the genre to a certain extent and reminding us that cartoons aren’t just for kids. As your background is in animation, do you think Dougie’s War might translate well to the screen and are there any plans to move in that direction?

I’d really like to see Dougie’s War as a play, or as an audio book. Something that takes it into a completely different arena would be great, in my mind better than an animation based on my artwork. I think the market for animated films about “war not really being that great” has been filled at the moment, and the films you mentioned have been critically acclaimed and award winning. I’d prefer, if anyone was to approach us about a screen adaptation, that they think more laterally and expansive about it. I’m not precious about the drawings, they’re a means to an end. The story is the most important thing!

What’s next for you? Will you be working on more graphic novels in the near future?

I’m part of a comics group in London called “Six Fingers of Fate”, formed of guys I went to Art College with and friends we’ve made outside of college. We’re all working towards creating a body of work in our evenings and weekends, since most of us don’t have the time during the week to devote to creating comics, and it’s evolving slowly but surely. There’ll never be enough time in the world for me to draw or create all the ideas in my head, but it’s brilliant to have a regular outlet for it. Rodge and I have also been talking around several story ideas for a few years now and it would be excellent to see one of those make it out into the world. World domination, one page at a time…

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