“It’s all part of the general mission to show that comic books can do ‘serious’ subjects” Sean Michael Wilson and Robert Brown discuss their illustrated history of the Labour movement, The Many Not The Few graphic novel
We catch up with Sean Michael Wilson and Robert Brown, the creative team behind The Many Not The Few.
Tell us a bit about the inspiration and background for The Many Not the Few. What inspired you to tell the stories of these key moments in British popular history and why did you think now was the right time to bring these stories together for a new audience?
Sean Michael Wilson: Joke Answer: To get rich! Comics make lots of money you know!
Real Answer: I’m often asked where the ideas start from – is it me as the writer or do the publishers suggest them? In my case it’s about two-thirds from my own ideas and one-third from the publisher. In this case, although the book feels very much like mine and Robert’s now, it was actually a meeting between Chris at New Internationalist and Doug, the General Secretary at the union (GFTU), that started the book. Chris then introduced me to Doug and he and I worked out the basic contents. Doug had key points in history he thought were important to look at, so I went off and researched each of them.
The inspiration is because I like history, and along with the GFTU and NI the basic point is that these things are all: important, relevant today, but overlooked, not known enough. The core fire in it for me and Doug and the folks at NI is a strong dislike for capitalism and a wish for us all to move towards a better system. Though I’m not sure how much Robert shares that. The specific aim for Doug I think is also to have a book that charts the development of the labour movement that he has dedicated his life to.
Robert Brown: Sean invited me to collaborate on this book around the time of those early discussions (or perhaps shortly thereafter), but I didn’t get really involved until after the content and structure had been decided upon – so I can only comment on my motivations for accepting his invitation. I’m very interested in both history and the labour movement, so I found the idea of exploring and retelling (little bits of) the history of the labour movement very appealing. It helped that I was already familiar with some of the events covered in the book – I’d even considered creating something about the (so-called) Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 some years ago!
As for timing: I think we’re experiencing a resurgence of popular support for and interest in socialism and the labour movement, in Britain and elsewhere. Knowing the history of the movement(s) – our antecedents’ and comrades’ efforts, struggles, and motivations – is so important; hopefully our comic can be one way to stimulate interest in this history, and to make it accessible.
We love the way you tell the story as a chat between a grandfather and his granddaughter – it makes it so much more readable and informal, rather than being lectured at. Was this a key decision in the creation of the book as a way to make the subject more relatable?
SMW: Yes, that was key and I am happy with how the characters, Joe and Arushi, grew as the script progressed. Initially my idea was for them to just be there in a barebones type way, but I started to enjoy writing them and they ended up appearing in it much more than I had planned. There is such a warmth of relationship between them that it makes it appealing.
Funnily enough we might trace the source of that back to TV comedians Morecambe and Wise! I once read that what made that series so popular was the closeness of the relationship between Eric and Ernie. There is an appealing warmth there. So, I thought it would be a good way to balance the basically serious subject matter. Though what also makes them work is the quality that Robert has in his art – there is also a certain ‘warmth’ in his lines, I think.
Though, on a more general note: I’m critical of the whole idea that we should not be lectured to. It seems a rather shallow limitation to me, not a positive thing. Why can’t we simply LEARN stuff? Why must it all be sugar-coated? If you look at what happens between Joe and Arushi, she basically learns info from her grandfather who knows more about the subject than she does. He does it with affection and respect for her – she asserts herself, they joke and even swap roles for a bit. But basically, she is happy to learn.
He reminds me of something I heard: a famous historian went to give a talk at a prison and he started off by saying, “I would like you see this as an exchange rather than a lecture. I’m sure I have as much to learn from you,” but one of the prisoners interrupted him and said, “Excuse me, Professor, but you know a lot more about this stuff than us – we are here to learn. So teach us.” The near-obsession that folk have nowadays about not putting over info in a ‘lecturing’ way seems to me to be far less positive than it’s taken to be.
RB: The idea of Joe and Arushi’s conversations tying the book together appealed to me for personal, formal reasons – I’ve got a penchant for frame stories; I like that interplay between the variety of short stories and the consistency of an ongoing narrative. I think their conversations are also appropriate for the subject matter, because our engagement with history is a dialogue – and discussions encompassing multiple perspectives and experiences are an important part of understanding the political significance of history.
Were there any events which you wanted to include in more detail, or were these the key ones you knew needed focusing on?
SMW: For most people who don’t write books or make movies etc. the normal idea they have is that it will be difficult to do something that is so long. But, in practice, it’s often quite the opposite – 100 pages is not long enough, a 90 minute movie is simply too short to get in all that you want, etc. That’s especially so when the subject matter cover nearly 700 years! So, the key thing is to combine two basic aspects: to summarise, but make it smooth. To get in your points in a meaningful way that still flows well across the page, in the construction of the panels on each page and over the scope of the whole chapter and book. And comic books have a particular aspect in the dance between the words and art in each panel.
RB: 100 pages was more than enough for me – it took me over a year to draw them all!
Joking aside – that page-count seemed to have been set early on, which ‘capped’ how much detail we could pack into each chapter. Sean did a good job of balancing the necessary detail without burdening the pages with too much text – a particular challenge in making educational/documentary comics. We had to lightly trim down one of the latter chapters that was evidently too word-heavy for the space we had, but for the vast majority of the book we were able to keep almost everything from Sean’s original script. So, he did very well in terms of the necessity “to summarise, but make it smooth” (and in other terms, too!).
Why did you choose to tell the story as a graphic novel rather than another format? And who is the book aimed at? An older audience or younger kids?
SMW: It’s all part of the general mission that a lot of us comic book folk are on: to show that comic books can do ‘serious’ subjects, that it’s not a kids’ art form. We are in a good time for comics because publishers like New Internationalist and Myriad and Jonathan Cape etc. already accept and like the idea that graphic novels can be about history, biography, social issues, etc. In a more specific way it’s because New Internationalist simply like the three books I’ve done with them before and thought this would be an appealing way to tackle the history of the labour movement. I am not sure why Doug at the GFTU was into that so readily/ He seems to be very keen on the idea that artists are cultural workers and can contribute towards society. He is also from a tough work background, so he may have seen a comic book as a way to appeal to some younger readers. But as you can see from the tone and level of the text and the sophistication of Robert’s artwork, the book is aimed at readers in general, not specifically kids.
RB: I work mostly in comics, as does Sean (as far as I know), so I don’t think there was ever any question of making this book in a different form – I think making something other than a comic would be a more conscious decision for us, especially as a duo!
In terms of readers’ ages, it’s not in my nature to ‘target’ works at specific audiences, so I didn’t draw this book with a particular age-range in mind. I think most people approaching the book will have a prior interest in comics or in labour history, if not both – but as it employs a straightforward comics grammar and doesn’t assume prior knowledge of its subject, it’s accessible for curious readers who aren’t well-versed in comics or labour history.
Have the pair of you worked together on projects before and it not, how did you come to work on this one together?
SMW: Joke Answer: I have never seen this man Robert in my life!
Real Answer: Well, as it goes, Robert and I have not actually met, I think! But, yes, we have worked on a few things together already, though this is our first full-length book. Basically, as I said, I like the warmth in his line, so I asked him to join us as the artist once NI and GFTU had agreed to do the book. He did a great job – the book only arrived with me 2 days ago so I’ve been reading over it myself and thinking how much good stuff there is in it.
RB: We actually did meet once! I bought some books from Sean at a comic convention in Bristol during my uni days, but I didn’t introduce myself – I tend to be chattier when I’m on the other side of the table. (He surreptitiously sold me Kazuichi Hanawa’s Doing Time half-price – misers never forget a good bargain.) Some years later, Sean approached me about working with him, and we collaborated on a few small projects before finally embarking upon a book-length comic project together.
Did you have to do much research for the artwork to ensure everything was historically accurate?
SMW: Joke Answer: Nah, all we did was we watch an old episode of Blackadder!
Real Answer: This is mostly for Robert to answer, but for such books I’m in the habit of attaching quite a lot of visuals to the script, old photos and drawings. Both help save the artist time in getting it themselves and because sometimes we can use that old image very closely, if it’s a highly suitable one and is not in copyright.
RB: Yup, I did a fair bit of research. Cheers, Internet! The material Sean gathered in his scripts saved me some time, but I continued to dig around quite deeply for reference material to help make my drawings as authentic and accurate as possible. Something you picked up on in your review, Alex, was my desire to retain the period flavour of certain historical reference images – which I did by creating my own ‘versions’ of old paintings and engravings for occasional panels in the earlier chapters. (This was also logical in places where Joe and Arushi explicitly point to illustrations in books.) For the most part, though, I looked at lots of different resources for inspiration for original compositions. Sometimes I found myself reading quite extensively about events mentioned only briefly to make sure that we were being as accurate as possible – sometimes my thoroughness in this regard annoyed Sean when we were pushing up against deadlines! 😉
Naturally, there were certain historical persons, places, or events for which I couldn’t find detailed or specific references (visual or textual) – which I had to just imagine, based upon contemporary analogues. Challenging, but also quite freeing!
You’ve got a foreword from Jeremy Corbyn and he was also at the launch – how did he get involved and how important do you think this is as a stamp of approval for you? (And do you think this might stop people reading it who otherwise should?!)
SMW: Joke Answer: We don’t want no Tories reading the book anyway!
Real Answer: I’m very glad that Corbyn did the intro and made a very supportive speech at the launch event. It’s also pretty cool that the event was actually in Parliament itself. The union folk organised all that for the book. John McDonnell came as well and also spoke.
Since I am even MORE left-wing than they are, it’s not a political problem for me! But it might be for some, yes. There are a few issues there, if I may be allowed to ‘lecture’, hehe… the first one is the silly idea that art should not be political. This is a daft idea that has no justification and simply isn’t realistic. Very common, but very daft! All this stuff – politics, art, entertainment, the way we live our lives on an everyday level in work, education, health, etc. – it’s all intermingled and each aspect influences the others. That’s just reality.
The idea that comics books or movies should only be about fantasy is a silly limitation. They can be about anything. This particular book of ours is clearly, openly and honestly from a left-wing point of view. For those who don’t like that way of thinking: check out the book and tell us clearly and honestly (and politely, please) where you think we got it wrong. It’s all part of the dialectic.
RB: I think we have Doug from GFTU, our history consultant, to thank for getting Corbyn involved in the project and its launch. I think (hope!) that his endorsement will encourage more positive attention than aversion. Let’s see!
And finally, will we be seeing more books (like) this from either of you in the future?
SMW: Joke Answer: Only if you open your eyes.
Real Answer: Yes, hopefully a lot. I like making books like this. But, in capitalism, it all depends on sales. Even for anti-capitalist organisations and publishers, the need to sell enough books is a major factor and a rather annoying limitation. So, get the book please, folks – Robert and I gotta eat!
RB: For now, I’m back to working on my ongoing series, Killjoy – specifically, a new, bumper issue (#6) and a reworked version of the second issue. And then, I’ve got a few different ideas for fictional works – just deciding which one might be best to pursue. (And yes, please buy our book!)