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De Profundis

I was going to do a second series of Santa Claus Comics Daily this year, but as things have turned out I've got more on my plate than is really compatible with spending the necessary time on it. A couple of hard copies of the original run are now circulating, though: these are home printed on a strictly limited basis, so if you see one it's because I've singled you out for the privilege.

HM Government permitting, I'm likely to be doing some larger-scale self-publishing again soon, having stumbled quite by chance on a UK-based printer whose prices actually make it viable. Santa Claus #1 was briefly slated for the full treatment, but it's a bit late in the year now to start the ball rolling with something I'd have to turn round and sell out of before Christmas. The numbers are looking promising for other projects though, so expect further developments in the New Year.

Onwards and upwards at last...


Process Notes 5: Fiat Lux

I made it to the library talks after all, and they went quite well.

Once Martin had talked a bit about the history of comics, the story of Burke and Hare and how the book came about, I went into some more detail about the sheer imaginative and academic effort involved in recreating the environment of early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, and portraying it on the page in a way that I hope evokes the feel of the period as well as the hard historical facts. The digging I did to identify Dr Knox's house wasn't a one off: every location, every piece of furniture or clothing, every supporting character high or low, is based on the maximum possible research I could get done. But inevitably there are limits to what you can find out.

For example: Chapter Seven finds William Burke living with his brother, in Gibb's Close off the Canongate. From a scouting mission back in January, I know where that is and how it looks today, but I stared long and hard at those windows – more specifically at the arches of stonework above them. Are they just force spreaders to protect the lintels, or were original arched windows squared off at some point, as happened later with Surgeons' Hall?

The tenement was built around 1700 as a townhouse for the Earl of Traquair, a family best known for staying Catholic through the Reformation, so an Italianate influence isn't out of the question; but with nothing definite either way, I eventually just went with what was easiest to draw.

Looking back, I should probably have dropped the level of the street a bit as well, but that's hindsight for you.

As the chapter opens, Burke is having an early morning drink in a nearby pub, where he makes the acquaintance of two young women (no prizes for guessing that this will not end well for them!). The precise location of Swanston's tavern is not recorded, so I considered using the World's End, which was associated with a notorious double murder in the 1970s:

but ultimately decided that that sort of expansive allusion to wider Edinburgh lore was beyond the scope of the book. Instead, I selected an appropriate-looking shopfront a little further down the hill on the opposite side of the road, just a few yards up from the distinctive landmark of Canongate Tolbooth – whence, according to the research, Mary and Janet had just been released after a night in the cells for soliciting – and used period illustrations as reference to replace the buildings in between with what was there at the time.

With the establishing shots pinned down, I drew the rest of the page freehand, trying to keep the transitions between panels as fluid as possible. The only major change I made at the inking stage was in panel 3: as with my earlier doubts about the windows, I've no idea whether Gibb's Close has, or ever had, a spiral staircase; but some of the older tenements further up the Royal Mile still do, so it's possible – and crucially it adds a sense of movement and drunkenness that's less obvious in the pencilled version.

It's worth asking how much value I got out of the research I did for this page, considering more than two thirds of it came straight out of my own head, and even the top row is as much speculation as fact. But my feeling is that for a project like this it's the details that matter, and you may as well get them right if you can.

Otherwise, you end up with something like this:

I mean, I ask you: Sheffield?

Read the rest, if you fancy a laugh, at Pappy's Golden Age Comics.


Release the Books!

Copies of BURKE & HARE have begun to appear in the wild (pic at right courtesy of Professor Marto) - I saw the finished product for the first time last night, and I'm pretty chuffed with it. Kudos to all involved with the presentation and packaging - for an old small-press bod like me, having someone else handle the business side of a project like this is very much an appreciated luxury.

The first Amazon orders have already shipped, and initial feedback is good. It should be in book and comic shops from next week sometime, and the whole production gang will be at the Birmingham International Comic Show this coming weekend - where the first twenty copies sold will come with a free promotional poster by – *gasp* – superstar artist Frank "The Greens" Quitely!

Following that, Martin Conaghan will be talking about the book at Motherwell Library on Tuesday morning, and Wishaw Library on Tuesday afternoon – I'm probably going to miss these due to other commitments, but I'm sure the star of Radio Scotland's sports desk can rabbit on well enough for both of us.

Further events to be announced.


On Sale in October

£12.99 from all good bookshops,
ISBN 1905808127; but you can get it slightly cheaper, and throw a few extra pence my way at the same time, if you Order it now from Amazon


Process Notes 4: A Picture is Worth Four Words

Edit: Incidentally, does anyone know what that thing is under the arch above the door to the judges' rooms? It's unclear in the reference pics I have – I initially thought it might be a carved coat of arms, but I'm not convinced.

Crowd scenes are a bit like tattoos: they can look great, but you need to be a particular kind of crazy to put yourself through the pain of getting them that way, and one careless line can ruin everything.

The one above isn't even finished: I've still got the people in the gallery to draw.

Original size 20cm by 8.



Process Notes 3: The Dreaded Deadline Doom


Will Pickering is incommunicado until further notice.


Process Notes 2: Confession Time

According to crime historian and professional Irishman Owen Dudley Edwards, William Burke took the sacrament of holy absolution while in Calton Gaol. It was administered by a Father William Reid, who apparently served for many years as assistant to the Vicar-General for Scotland* before retiring to a parish in Dumfries, where he died in the 1840s.

I've done my best to find authentic likenesses of all the background characters in the Burke and Hare comic, but inevitably there's quite a few who remain maddeningly obscure, and in such cases I've had to improvise.

*The Catholic episcopacy in Scotland had been abolished during the Reformation, and would not be recreated until 1878. Ironically, this meant that the surviving Catholic mission in the country was more dependent on direct Papal authority, not less. Doh!


Process Notes 1: Bringing It All Back Again

By the time Newington Place appears on the 1843 Ordnance Survey map, it's clearly recognisable as the terrace of townhouses that's still there today, half-hidden behind a row of shops and redesignated as 1-17 Newington Road (odd numbers only: the OS map shows it as 1-9 running in the opposite direction).

The anatomist Robert Knox lived at 4 Newington Place in 1829, as confirmed by contemporary reports of the angry mob that besieged his house in the aftermath of the Burke trial; but was it the same house that was there 15 years later, or an earlier building in the same general vicinity?

I need to go further back.

West Newington House, just across the road, was built in 1805, as part of a development scheme initiated by the then landowner, the surgeon Benjamin Bell (grandfather of Joseph Bell, whose observational and deductive skills famously inspired Conan Doyle – in Edinburgh, everything connects to everything else!), but progress round about seems to have been reasonably slow: Thomson's Atlas of Scotland for 1820 shows no structures on the Newington Place plot, and a feu map as late as 1826 just shows an empty field assigned to a Mr Reid. Arniston Place, the next block south, does appear on both maps, which suggests that it's not just an oversight by a lazy cartographer.

Thus, in conclusion: yes, the current No.11 Newington Road, behind the New China Town Cantonese restaurant, is indeed the former home of Robert Knox, who must have bought it as a suburban newbuild sometime in 1826-1828. Here's his front door:

It was a relief to work that out. One of the nice things about Georgian architecture is that because it's all so mathematically regular, the whole original design can easily be extrapolated from even a partial view:

Reconstructing the chaotic vernacular buildings of the Old Town is a whole other barrel o' rollmops...


Sir Walter Scott (Bart.) Reflects

From my forthcoming graphic novel with Martin Conaghan, Burke and Hare (Insomnia Publications, August).

Those of you who know Edinburgh well are invited to guess where the author of Waverley is standing in this shot. No cheating, mind!