“The Engine would smell like a mix of diesel fuel, old leather and bay rum” Jimmy Broxton and Guy Adams discuss Madefire’s The Engine and the smell of motion books
What do you get if you cross a giant Soviet robot from the 1930s with a bunch of dissidents in a Siberian salt mine and add in a liberal dose of motion book magic? Quite simply, you get The Engine! Launched alongside such big name motion books as Captain Stone and Treatment in the first wave of Madefire titles last year, The Engine has become one of the forgotten titles among the motion book publishers back catalogue – which is ironic for a book about a gigantic metal mangling machine! Hoping to rescue this robotic Russian relic from the rust heap, we contacted writer Guy Adams and artist Jimmy Broxton to learn more and find out just what a motion book should smell like!
Tell us about how you came to be involved in the Madefire project? How did you hook up with Liam Sharp and co and what appealed to you about coming to work on motion books?
JB: Dave Gibbons contacted me regarding a new project he was working on for Madefire (I had already seen an announcement, so knew a little about it). Dave wanted me to work with him on his Treatment series, naturally I jumped at the chance, but that came later, as then Liam got in touch, I went to see him and he offered me the Engine. Once I saw what an incredible tool Liam had at his disposal via the Madefire platform, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I may rephrase that at a later date.
GA: Of course you won’t, you’re the Frankie Howerd of comics and love handling incredible tools.
For my part, I’d known Liam a while, but mainly online. I’d reviewed his novel Godkillers and that had led us to start chatting. He was interested in the prose side of writing (which is really where I’ve been working for the last eight or nine years) whereas I was interested in comics. We enjoyed looking at the grass on each other’s side of the fence.
We met up at a convention, had a few drinks and a meal and he mentioned Madefire to me, asking what I thought about it and whether I’d be interested in coming onboard once it launched. Naturally I said yes, it all sounded very exciting and the enthusiasm and drive he had — and still has, along with all the other folk at Madefire — was extremely contagious.
Also, while motion books are not precisely comics it did finally give me a chance to fill a word balloon or three.
Tell us a bit about the creation and inspiration for The Engine? Liam and his wife Christina [McCormack] are credited with creating the character but how much input did you have at the origin and since? And what inspired you for the look and feel? Other motion comics or was it more art, film and literature?
JB: Liam asked if I wanted to have a go at designing the look of The Engine, he sent mood boards of giant robot stuff, Soviet propaganda posters etc, all very cool imagery. Most of which I ignored. Sort of.
There was a back and forth as we got closer to what we now have, he needed to look powerful, able to punch through walls but also have an approachability, an almost child like quality that humans can relate to. I see him as a Soviet palooka, punch drunk, mute, slightly bewildered, but given to bouts of savant like clarity, a Frankenstein type figure, who can terrify the town’s folk but delight the children and not worry the livestock too much. I wanted a 1930s deco feel, and Liam definitely had this in mind as well, but also something that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970s Sparky comic. If Madefire added a “sniffing” capability to the app: “tap and sniff”, The Engine would smell like a mix of diesel fuel, old leather and bay rum, I do not want to imagine what the other characters might smell like.
GA: Liam and Christina came up with the concept, the idea of The Engine as the last working example of a failed experiment that would go on to prove a lifesaver to a mine of trapped workers. I then embellished that a bit. There’s always a fine line with this kind of work. On the one hand you’re wanting to stay true to the ideas someone else has created, on the other you need to find a way of making it yours too. Like a singer singing lyrics written by someone else. You have to make it personal.
I came up with all the human characters, the world outside the mine and set out my stall as to how I wanted The Engine to play into all that.
The series has a very distinctive feel, thanks to its use of Soviet imagery. Was that always the plan to utilize the Soviet bloc font and the textured feel, and also the more graphical elements to help make it stand out from the other titles? What do you think is the appeal of that era from a graphical point of view for you both? And also from a story telling point of view?
JB: I wanted to try and capture the feel of an alternative history of the U.S.S.R, or should that be CCCP? Obviously the iconography that we associate with Communism is a gift for a designer. My background is in graphic design, and it has always been a factor in my comic art, usually from a much more organic and naturalistic perspective, where design elements, use of black and negative space etc arise from the settings and staging, plus lighting etc, this is not “imposed”, it arises organically from the storytelling. Sometimes though, it’s legitimate in storytelling terms to “impose” a design sensibility on the art, something quite conscious and deliberate, there are parts of the Engine that allow me to do this, especially when I get into areas of faux poster designs etc, and of course the motion effects really help to facilitate those transitions and make them seamless parts of a greater whole. None of which I can take any credit for, it’s the Madefire team who do all of the motion work, sometimes I provide storyboard breakdowns and suggestions for transitions, but only rarely, basically if something moves, it’s their call.
GA: Just getting side-tracked on the subject of movement, I think that’s something all the writers have slowly been gathering pace on. My last couple of scripts have finally begun to play with that a bit more. I’m thinking specifically of a sequence where I try and keep a constant sense of movement for what is, in effect, half an episode. That won’t be published for a few months yet but I’m interested to see if it works! This is all new and as we begin to get our heads around the potential of it, what works and what doesn’t, new things are going to keep appearing.
As far as the Soviet tone goes, I always approach a project from the point of view of “flavour” or atmosphere. That’s always the first step for me. The Engine alters as it progresses, starting off dark, hot and red, earthy and confined and then becomes bright white and cold. No doubt it will change again. It’s a state of mind for me as I write.
The Soviet aspect is a sense of oppression and fear, something that simmers.
It’s less obvious from the writer’s point of view because so much of the tone in comics comes from the artist but Jimmy and I are on the same page, both in this and the other projects we work on together, we get a mutual sense of tone and run with it I think. He’s a great cook that Broxton!
JB: Well, if I’m a cook, then Guy must be great at shopping, as he provides all the ingredients, and the recipe to boot, I’m just a helper in the kitchen. I think I have stretched this culinary metaphor as far as it will go. Other than to say, Guy and I seem to be cooking on gas with our various collaborations.
The first four issues have been a slow build and it is only really with issue five that we get to experience the full power of The Engine, was that always the plan and did you enjoy teasing the readers with little glimpses of the main character up to that point?
JB: He’s the main character to me, as for the slow build, that directive came from Liam as I understand it.
GA: It did but with good reason, he wanted it to be a slow build so we really felt the potency of it as they broke out of the mine and took the next step of their journey.
For me, The Engine is the central character, though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the one with the most screen time. The main thing I wanted to achieve with him was that he would be a trigger for those around him. That’s what I’ll continue to explore as we go on. I like the idea of this silent icon, a different thing to everybody, something to be feared, worshipped, loathed… He’s not a constant, he’s a mirror and a catalyst.