“We wanted it to feel like all the best kids stories, where they get to go on crazy adventures but are still back in time for tea!” Leah Moore, John Reppion and Sally Jane Thompson talk Conspiracy of Ravens from Dark Horse Comics

We don’t normally cover Dark Horse Comics here on the site, but we thought we would make an exception for Conspiracy Of Ravens, the first creator owned book from Leah Moore and John Reppion, with art from small press star Sally Jane Thompson. This all ages adventure features a young girl at boarding school discover a fantastic secret about her family history including inheriting the mysterious Raven Hall. We caught up with Leah, John and Sally to find out more.

Are we right in thinking this is your first creator owned title? So what was it about the world of Anne Ravenhall that made you choose to finally go down this avenue?

Leah Moore: This book is so special to us, and the fact that it is creator owned is a huge part of that. I think with work for hire stories, you kind of steel yourself not to get to attached because you know you can’t keep it, if that makes sense? With COR all that went out of the window and we have been allowed to just take our ideas and run with them, and get attached, and really build the world they all live in, and imagine their future lives, the future books, the whole giant exciting shebang! The group of girls at the centre of the story are the key to it all really. They have this amazing journey, and discover all kinds of magical secrets about themselves, but at the end of the day, the most compelling thing is how they cope with all that as a group of friends.

• And what made you make the leap into all ages story-telling rather than create something a bit more grown up or edgy? Was it just the kind of story that you developed around Anne, or was it a conscious choice to write something more kid friendly?

LM: I think we have always wanted to write something that younger readers would enjoy. The majority of our work has been for the adult market, and its hard to hear your kids asking what are you working on, and you have to say they aren’t big enough to read it yet. I grew up reading dozens of great kids comics by Ken Reid, or Leo Baxendale, or Lew Stringer and Davy Francis, and they were really fun, gross, anarchic, violent and exciting comics, but they were ‘just’ kids comics. I think the whole 80’s boom into ‘adult’ comics was a mixed blessing, in that it allowed the medium to expand and change and for amazing creators to collaborate on books that could hold their own next to novels or cinema. But it also created the idea that the four colour comics everybody had loved up to that point were somehow less sophisticated than the super violent, explicit, hard boiled comics that followed. With COR, we wanted to give a feel of all the best kids stories, where they get to go on crazy adventures, and battle scary villains but they still had to be back for tea, and do their maths homework. We wanted the characters to be interesting, and their interactions to feel realistic, to get readers into that world and leave them wanting more.

You seem to really revel in using a lot of tropes from classic all ages fiction – it feels a bit Harry Potter and a bit Famous Five, and is it a coincidence there is a girl called Anne at a school called ‘Gables’?

LM:  Definitely! That was totally our aim. I have three small boys at home, and they are your average Minecraft addicted, flossing, pokemon card collecting, nonsense talking kids. At night when we read to them, more often than not, we read them classic kids books like The Faraway Tree, Toms Midnight Garden, Wyrdstone of Brisingamen, The Hobbit, The Secret Garden, The Borrowers, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and yes Harry Potter! The books are still riveting all these years later because they are just exciting lovely stories that capture your imagination.

Sally Jane Thompson: Our very early back and forth about the story definitely featured a ‘classic British boarding school/mysterious manor house adventure story meets magical girl’ vibe, and I think there’s a lot of affection for both genres evident in the book. Rather than being very purposeful with references, I wanted a strong atmosphere that felt like the former, and the emotional development and bonding of the latter. There are questions as you work on something like this of how specific you want to be and if you want to lean into or lean away from that, but I think we mostly just went with what felt right for each instance. For example, there’s a very familiar magical-girl visual at one point in the book, but it was the right moment for that point in the story and I think our girls earned it, so I hope it’ll bring a smile to readers who do have a lot of familiarity, as well as feel natural for those who don’t.

Can you tell us a bit about how you came to work with Sally on this book? There’s a really fun story In the back of the book about it all being inspired by a piece of raven artwork, is that how it all got started?

John Reppion: Twitter is how it all got started really. Back in the deep dark past of 2012 Sally ran a little give-away thing on Twitter where she was offering a sketches to some of her followers. My name ended up getting picked out of the hat, so Sally asked me what I would like for my sketch. I said something like “Well, I like Victorian stuff, and I like corvids – crows and stuff – so maybe something involving those?”. It was a weird request really, and potentially a really awkward one. Sally came back with this piece of art – not a sketch but a fully finished piece – showing a young woman in Victorian dress opening a locket and a flock of ravens flying out of it. It was just perfect. Wonderful. We had a couple of Tweets back and forth where we were saying “Oh, her name’s got to something Ravenhall and she’s inherited this magical locket”, just riffing off the image. Then we realised this was actually a really, really good idea so we switched to emails and started coming up with the beginnings of Conspiracy of Ravens.

What is it about ravens that make them such iconic characters in literature and comics?

LM: I think their intelligence gives them real presence and an eerie quality that they are fully aware of everything that is happening. All the corvids are clever, but Ravens have that big shaggy silhouette, and that big beak, and a gleam in their eye. In Poe’s incredible ‘The Raven’ he uses the rhythm of the poem to create a wonderful intimate atmosphere which he then disrupts with the brilliantly simple talking bird. The mounting horror and panic as the bird repeats the same ominous word is just wonderful. I think that Corvids always look like they are up to something. Its not just intelligence, they kind of seem to be judging us!

And Sally did you regret creating a story about birds when you realized you had to draw so many of them?!

SJT: Haha! A little bit! I have a tendency to get hung up on “getting things right”, which led to a lot of hours of referencing how their feathers lay and so on, on panels people will look at for seconds. But I also felt great whenever I got one looking particularly good!

Were there any particular parts of the story which were challenging to come up with and are there any parts you are particularly proud of?

SJT: This story features a number of striking locations. Creating a sense of place is really important to me, so I put a lot into all of them, but some were definitely a challenge! I also haven’t worked on a lot of stories with much physical action in them, so I was sweating a bit over those pages! I’m most proud of the girls themselves though, and how I think their personalities come through in their expressions.

As the story develops we begin to learn about Anne’s grandmother and her group of bird inspired superheroes/Golden Age spies that she is a part of – it must have been a lot of fun coming up with the various identities and costumes? 

SJT: While I love costume design, the final costumes were probably the trickiest part of the book! Starting from when the original Dissimulation was active, what clothing was like at the time, and then how much we could push away from that (inspired by fashion illustrations for contemporary masquerade costumes) in order to give them a bit more movement and practicality. Then also how to reference each bird on the design, and make something that the current girls could alter to end up with something would suit their personality! Phew!
Were the birds always a part of the inspiration for the Dissimulation team? And who were your favourites to write/create the costumes for?
SJT: The birds were definitely there all the way through – as John and Leah will tell you in the origin story of the book!

The easiest costume was Crow’s – my earliest sketch seemed to be exactly what was in Leah and John’s heads as well, without us discussing it! (And yes, definitely some Tuxedo Mask influence in there for our mysterious Crow!) The others were trickier, especially Bronwen and Anne’s, but I think Patricia’s magpie costume, and Emily’s newly altered version of it, are my favourites!

JR: It’s great to have the folkloric basis to build on with ravens, crows, magpies, jackdaws, and jays – all these British birds which each have their own set of legends and superstitions attached to them. I think it gives the magic some kind of familiarity and reality – like you understand that there’s already a little bit of magic tied up in those birds anyway.

Is this a one shot, or have you got any plans for more Anne Ravenhall stories, or even more Dissimulation stories?

JR: There is so much room for further adventures of the Dissimulation, so many stories we’re dying to tell, so I really hope we get to share those with readers in the future.

SJT: We’ll have to see what happens, but I for one would happily come back to our girls (and their predecessors), I love them all!
Conspiracy of Ravens is available now from Dark Horse Comics. You can find out more about Leah and John’s work at www.moorereppion.com and find out more about Sally’s work at www.sallyjanethompson.co.uk