Septic Isle: England's Ugly Underbelly

A comics interview article by: Kelvin Green
Back in June, I reviewed Septic Isle a new short graphic novel from Andy Winter and Mick Trimble. The comic tells the story of aging secret agent Jacob Marley, and his attempt to find meaning in his life as he investigates a spate of suicide bombings in modern Britain. The book appears in the August issue of Previews, so I took the opportunity to catch up with Andy and Mick to find out more about the story and the ideas behind it.

Kelvin Green: Where did the idea for Septic Isle come from?

Andy Winter: I was re-reading Ian Fleming's Bond novels a few months after the 7/7 attacks on London and the two things just came together in my head. What would happen if a Bond-style character stopped fighting weird secret organizations and billionaire madmen and had to deal with more realistic enemies of the state in 21st century Britain? The idea to make the book's central character - Jacob Marley - an older, washed-up former MI5 agent came a little bit later along with his Dickens-inspired name.

KG: And why "Jacob Marley"? Dickens' Marley is a ghost and secret agents are often associated with spectral imagery; is there a further connection beyond that association?

AW: Giving Septic Isle's Jacob Marley that name was really to underline that he was a ghost of his former self - someone who had had it all and then had everything taken away from him. You could also say that in the same way that Dickens' Marley comes back to save Ebenezer Scrooge from himself, our Marley thinks in returning to MI5 he's going to rescue his country from the litany of ills he sees afflicting it.

Mick Trimble: And there's the whole chains thing with Dickens' ghost in our Marley feels burdened with the all the bad things he's done and about to do; like Dickens' ghost, our Marley feels like he's forged his own chains.

Also, I think Andy wanted to get the point across that Marley feels he's a ghost, (metaphorically speaking, of course!) and there aren't that many other well known "ghosty" names out there. He might've called him Casper, I suppose! Doesn't sound so tough, though!

KG: Septic Isle deals with some controversial issues, like suicide bombing and Nazi ideology; how did you go about approaching these concepts?

AW: I wanted to use a neo-Nazi as my bad guy because the far right seems to get an exceptionally easy ride in Britain these days. The BNP (British National Party), a formerly explicitly neo-Nazi organization, has even entered the political mainstream despite having numerous senior members who are, quite clearly, admirers of Hitler and Nazi Germany. And anyone who thinks the idea of a neo-Nazi terror cell operating in the UK is far fetched should go Google the names David Copeland, Martyn Gilleard, Robert Cottage and David Bolus Jackson.

All that said, I didn't want my bad guy to be an absurd, ranting caricature with an exaggerated German accent ("Ve vill rule ze world!") like something out of an old Captain America story. I wanted Septic Isle's neo-Nazi villain Jerome Quinn to have a point of view, to be someone who had embraced Nazism through a definite intellectual choice and who, if asked, could rationalize it. You talk to a lot of people with deep-seated prejudices and, more often than not, they're incapable of constructing any sort of intelligent argument about why they feel like they do. Quinn cannot only do that but he chooses to act upon it in the most astonishingly unpleasant way possible.

The use of suicide bombers in the story really came about because I was trying to figure out what might be the most inhumane thing my bad guy could inflict on his victims, and having people blow themselves up in order to save the lives of kidnapped loved ones was what I eventually hit upon. In this instance the suicide bombers are as much victims as those they kill, they're people who have had to make a terrible choice.

KG: The setting is modern-day and, despite the action elements, rather down to earth and realistic; did this setting create any particular storytelling challenges? Andy, much of your previous work has dealt with the fantastic, so how easy was it to write a more mundane tale?

AW: I don't think it was a hugely different experience to my other work because I always try to place character at the centre of whatever I'm writing. Beyond that, there was a bit more research involved, including searching on a variety of Nazi websites to get the look of certain things in the story right. And what a fun, life-affirming experience it was trawling through sites that sold SS mugs and Final Solution T-shirts!

Funnily enough, I see some of the stuff I researched as far less mundane than superheroes, demons or whatever. The story of the Nazi breeding program, the Lebensborn kinder, is like something out of a sci-fi novel and it ended up forming a fairly large part of Septic Isle's plot.

MT: Actually, I'm worried that MI5 have a file on me in real life because of the search terms I put into Google when I was researching this book! Amongst other things, I've researched Islamist suicide bombers, the 7/7 attacks and the MI5 building itself (which I got wrong and had to re-draw! Google is not infallible, kids!). I also looked at the neo-Nazi sites Andy mentioned and it really is sickening what's out there, but this book had to look realistic, not fantastic, so the research had to be done. I'm just worried about the weird clicking noise my phone now makes whenever I make a call!

KG: So there was never at any point a little voice saying, "Let's not do this, it's too controversial, let's do superheroes instead"?

AT: I don't really see Septic Isle as controversial, it's an action book about secret agents but has one foot in a pretty recognizable reality. Terrorism is a fact of life for people in the UK, as it has been for one reason or another for the last 30-plus years. If you want superheroes, may I direct you to Tim Skinner: Total Scumbag, a new one-shot available in the near future by me and my Hero Killers collaborator Declan Shalvey? That has lots of superheroes in it, all of them scabrous parodies of famous characters.

MT: I suppose some people might see us using an event like the 7/7 bombings in what is basically, as Andy says, an action story, as a bit sensitive, so it might be a little controversial in that respect, but if you go around being scared of upsetting people you'll get absolutely nothing done! That said, I personally don't think Septic Isle's that controversial as a whole, I think it addresses certain things that need to be addressed. I mean, surely no one's going to get the hump about us saying neo-Nazis might be evil!

KG: Changing tack, it strikes me that a sex scene, like a car chase, is one of those things that is difficult to do well in the comics medium; did you encounter any particular difficulties in presenting the sex scene in Septic Isle?

AT: The major difficulty with the sex scene is trying to convince people that it isn't only there for titillation. The scene was meant to illustrate that the book's two main characters Jacob and Maggie have grown close very quickly and to make the reader question why that might be. For Marley it's because he's lonely and probably quite desperate for a physical relationship with a woman. His wife is long gone and it's meant to underline his pain and anguish. Maggie's motivations are a little cloudier, however. Does she go to bed with Marley because she genuinely fancies him, because they've been through a great trauma together or because she needs to stop him wallowing in his own misery and get back to work? Is she being warm and affectionate, or a little bit cold and calculating?

MT: I personally see it as Maggie trying to get him back on board by any means necessary, and I think Marley's desperately lonely and falls for it, and he probably also sees it as a return to his "glory days" as a Bond-type womanizing super-spy, even though he's being played. And there was a lot of alcohol involved, too. Even though he is probably a complete bastard, I think Marley is stubborn, highly principled and incorruptible - once he's made up his mind it'd be hard to change it. You can't get to him through his family, he's already lost that, and I don't think he'd sell his country down the river or accept a bribe, so the only way to get to him is sex, and I think Firestone knows this, and does what she has to. Saying that though, I think Firestone does admire Marley and is probably a little bit in love with his reputation.

KG: The sketchbook section at the back of the comic shows some pages from an earlier Septic Isle, one in which there was more of a Bond influence; what was this earlier version like, and why did you decide to go in a different direction?

AW: The book ended up being quite downbeat and somewhat bleak, and the cut scene you see in the sketchbook section - Marley jumping off Blackfriars Bridge on a motorbike to catch some bad guy in a speed boat on the Thames - just looked totally incongruous alongside the rest of the story. It would have been like trying to splice a scene from a Roger Moore Bond film into an episode of Cracker.

MT: I got the script for those pages months before the rest of it, and had a blast doing them, as I'm a bit of a Bond nerd. But when the rest of the script arrived, Andy had had a change of heart about the tone of the book, and while it was a shame to see those pages go, I totally agreed with the decision to leave them on the cutting room floor, as it were. Having a motorbike with a built-in monitor and speedboat chases, and death-defying bike leaps off high bridges pushes the book into the realm of fantasy, and to some extent, wish fulfillment, and both of those things were totally wrong with what we wanted to achieve with the story.

KG: Will there be more from Jacob Marley, or was this really One Last Job?

AW: I already have a sequel roughly plotted in my head and would love to do more because Marley is probably my favorite of the characters I've created. Septic Isle has had quite a bit of good press so we'll just have to see if that's reflected in retailer orders and customer sales...

MT: I'd love to do another one, so everyone go out and buy this book! I've gotten quite attached to Marley, and I think there's plenty of scope for this character to have a series of interesting stories, especially with the political climate we find ourselves in at the moment.

KG:Might we see a Young Marley adventure more in keeping with those aforementioned early pages?

AW: More of Marley's past will definitely be revealed if we get to do further installments of Septic Isle, most likely as flashbacks rather than standalone stories though.

MT: I'd love to find out how Marley gets that scar he's got above his left eye, and I'd love to draw an all-action Bond-type extravaganza, but the problem I have with "flashback" stories as a reader is that you know the character survives and it drains any kind of dramatic tension from whatever peril the character finds himself in. I think leaving a lot of his past untold adds to his mystique, anyway.

KG: Sounds good to me. Thanks chaps for taking the time to answer the questions, and good luck with the book!

Septic Isle is released in November.

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