‘Yellowman’ Graphic Novel Twists Science And Magic In Victorian London
Dark and mysterious, a new top-hat thriller takes us back to steam power, carriages, and magic.
A young man emerges from a London pub and is assaulted on his way home. Just before being offed by his assailants, he is rescued by a mysterious bandaged man with a raven-head cane.
The next day, he wakes up hungover to the news that he has been released from his professorship due to some undisclosed, unsavory nature of his work. Following a tip from a blind man speaking through a young girl, he tries to find his rescuer and gets more than he expected.
Dark, mysterious, and thrilling, Yellowman is Warren Holder and Justin Quirk’s debut graphic novel. Set in Victorian London, this self-published work explores the shadow-filled backstreets and brilliant halls of science of a London hurtling towards modernity through the darkness of magic and the past.
Warren Holder is a renowned illustrator from the UK who recently worked on concept art for Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd and Alice in Wonderland. Justin Quirk is a contributor to The Guardian and is an award-winning writer and editor. Together they have created what has been hailed as “part From Hell, part The Master and Margarita” and “a beautifully drawn debut,” Yellowman reads like a thriller and packs a remarkable amount of architectural and era-specific detail into each frame.
We sat down with Justin and asked him about Yellowman‘s plot, the appeal of storytelling, and the benefits of the graphic novel as a medium.
You seem to have some sort of steampunk hero. Can you describe the plot?
It’s about an African albino who’s being pursued through London by two groups of people; a secret society of English industrialists and an African voodoo group. The industrialists want him to read the future for them (there’s a common superstition that despite having bad eyesight, Albinos can see the future) and tell them where to speculate for minerals in Africa; the Africans have already killed his parents for their skulls and need his to complete the set as albino skulls are a hugely powerful voodoo fetish. He reluctantly falls in with a pair of disgraced scientists who have their own – not entirely honorable – motives for helping him. It then pulls in a load of bigger stuff about the empire, the war between magic and science, Kent, a psychic cat and an undersea world…
As a journalist why have you turned to storytelling through the graphic novel form?
Well, like every journalist I know, I’ve always been chipping away at various books and screenplays in my spare time. But they’re huge undertakings in terms of time and work and a DIY mechanism doesn’t really exist for credibly getting them out there (Kindle is making some difference, but printing your own novel still has a whiff of vanity publishing about it). So, I wanted a project which would be a smaller undertaking, as you could put out one chapter and test whether there was any kind of audience without having to spend three years at work on an entire finished project. And the comic industry seems to have a DIY scene which is similar to the music industry – creating a small number of beautifully produced items and releasing them selectively seems like a viable project. And, for any creative, just working start to finish on one project, without having to pass it over to someone else at some point, or wait for it to be green lit or funded, is hugely satisfying. By printing it ourselves, we had a greater initial outlay, but it meant that we could really go to town on the details (spot varnishing, UV coating, heavy paper, even matching envelopes). Basically, we’re old fashioned print-nerds at heart.
What does the medium permit you to do – over text and photographic imagery?
Firstly, all credit for the visual look of Yellowman must go to Warren Holder. From some written instruction and a few photographic references, he’s turned this loose idea of mine into an entirely realized world on the page which is now as much his as it is mine. He’s worked on a lot of concept art for Tim Burton (Alice In Wonderland, Sweeney Todd, etc.) and has this incredible ability to convey ideas, emotions and even silence through these tiny, detailed illustrations. As for what it permitted me to do: I think the crucial thing was making myself work in a completely different medium and one which I wasn’t hugely familiar with even as a reader. By placing these parameters around yourself (in terms of textual economy, frame numbers, color selection, etc), I found myself thinking in a completely different way. All fiction I’d tried to write before was very realist, very modern. Suddenly, ideas which would have seemed outlandish in prose seemed to work in this different format. If you’re feeling creatively jaded, giving yourself these new rules to work by can be very liberating.
When is the next issue?
We’re aiming for early next year and the iPad version is almost ready to go.