Glyn Dillon only had a few physical comics published by Vertigo in the 1990s before focusing on film and television work – but he’s made a big return to the medium with The Nao of Brown (www.naobrown.com), a recently-released graphic novel from UK publisher SelfMadeHero (released in the US by Abrams Books), that our own Graeme McMillan says has “some of the best comic art I’ve seen in ages.”The book tells the tale of Nao Brown, who’s half-English, half-Japanese…and stuck halfway between the real world and the problems of her mind. Afflicted with a form of OCD that takes the form of violent fantasies and habits she doesn’t recognize, she’s weighed down with career troubles, relationship problems and the occasional bizarre SF story. But she’s self-aware and with a sense of humor about her situation, and a strange new person in her life might finally give her the perspective she needs.
Dillon, who’s also the brother of veteran Marvel and Vertigo artist Steve Dillon, talked with us about Nao Brown, his process for creating the book, his inspiration for the story, and much more. And if you read all the way to the end of this interview, you’ll get a hint about a pretty spectacular Easter Egg that can only be found by reading the book…
Newsarama: Glyn, how did the idea for The Nao of Brown initially come about?
Glyn Dillon: Originally, way back in 2007-8, I was planning to do an anthology comic. I’d become old enough to appreciate what a good thing we had, back in the day, with Deadline magazine, something I was too young to really realize at the time. I asked a few of my favorite artists if they’d be up for it, and got very quick and positive feedback from all of them.
I had a rough idea for a strip I wanted to do, something involving a washing machine repairman and a fantastical manga/anime world that he would somehow crossover into.And that washing machine repairman was the first incarnation of Gregory Pope, who still features in the book.
I was gonna get Alan Martin (Tank Girl) to help me out on the writing. But getting the creative talent on board is the easy part of making an anthology, I didn’t have the dedication needed to work on the business side of things, despite that, we nearly struck a deal with DC, but when that didn’t come off, I didn’t make any great efforts to continue with other publishers.
I did however keep on with the story, Alan became too busy with Tank Girl commitments, so I just got on with it myself, and after a weird three day spell of serendipitous revelations, I realized I had enough to make a decent-sized comic.
But the big difference was that Gregory was no longer the protagonist, instead his love interest, Nao, had pushed herself to centre stage and was egging me on to tell her story.Nrama: What lured you back to comics after so many years away?
Dillon: Well, kind of like I said at the beginning, I’d rediscovered an appreciation for the purity of the comics medium, and at the same time grown disillusioned with the film and television industry. Basically, I was ready to sit down and do all the hard work on my own, I was no longer fussed about the big collaborative process of film making.
And I won’t lie, the “absolute control” factor was very appealing, so I just decided to work on it in my spare time, not worrying about whether it would be published, just hoping that kind of thing would sort itself out, some time in the future. I’d realized the most important thing was just enjoying the process.
Nrama: Tell us about your process for creating the book.
Dillon: Well, writing-wise I’d never written anything so big before, that had a definite deadline. Prior to this I had written a screenplay off my own back, and I’d set a self imposed deadline for a first draft, which I did meet, but after one attempt at selling it, I put it on the shelf, where it remains to this day.
So when the deal for Nao was done with SelfMade Hero, at that point, I’d not been offered money to write anything as big, and I must admit I felt a bit daunted by it at first. I had done several treatments though, the biggest one being eleven pages, which kind of covered everything that happened, so I definitely had a decent “road map” of sorts.
Then the first thing I did was switch my days round so that I could sleep in the day and work through the night. Being distracted whilst drawing isn’t so bad, but being distracted when writing is unbearable, getting back on track is almost impossible.Any music I listened to had to be free of lyrics etc. At “lunchtimes” – around 3:00 a.m. – I’d read a few chapters of Bakuman, which the artist Tonci Zjonic had put me onto. I found that particularly inspiring, all the “friendly rivalry” and overly dramatic depictions of what it was like to make comics.
I had post-it notes with a short description of a scene, covering my entire studio window and each day my mission would be to write up two post-it notes into the script. That first draft was the hardest, it seems so long ago now, but I remember struggling through, some days worse than others, but with each successive draft it got easier.
I ended up doing six drafts in all, actually seven because I cut quite a bit as I was lettering. I would meet up with Si Spencer, who used to edit Deadline and is now a television writer and professional script doctor. He took me on as a patient, which was great, having someone, a professional, outside of the family looking over it was very useful… and we laughed a lot in the few sessions we had.
Nrama: I’m also interested in how you created the art for the story -- it’s a very unique, vivid color palette.Dillon: I drew it all on A4 copy paper, nothing fancy, which is a thing I got from doing storyboards. I used a HB 0.5 retractable pencil and darkened up the line in Photoshop. Then I’d reduce the opacity and print out onto water color pages.
This would give me the safety net of being able to mess up the painting whilst retaining the “bandw” artwork, but by the last six or seven months I was painting two pages a day, seven days a week so there wasn’t really any time to mess up anyway.
The “ichi” Manga/Anime pages, I colored in Photoshop, which, at the time was a nice break from all the messing about water colors. But I do love working with water color, it’s pretty exciting by comparison - no “control-Z” to fall back on.
Nrama: What made you want to deal with themes of OCD and meditation, and what sort of research did you have to do?
Dillon: My wife suffered with OCD badly, as a child and into her late teens. This all surfaced at the same time I was learning to meditate, in a very similar Buddhist centre to the one in the book. Learning about the two subjects at the same time, there were themes that crossed over between them.
Nao’s story isn’t my wife’s story, but her experience led me to investigate the condition more, I read a few books on the subject, visited online forums and went to actual group sessions for sufferers and their families. My wife was an invaluable sounding board throughout the process, for getting the tone right and certain details, so it became a very personal project.Nrama: I’m also curious what inspired Nao’s job in vinyl toys.
Dillon: Previously I’d done some design work for Kidrobot, so I had some direct experience of that world and I’ve always been a bit of a toy fan, I was the guy who, in my twenties, tracked down and re-bought the Star Wars toys that my Mum gave away to the kid down the road without me knowing.
I’m not a huge fan of the usual merchandise, there’ll never be t-shirts with Nao, Gregory or Steve on. But, going into the project I did have hopes that maybe we could make some of the toys that would feature in the book.
I liked the idea of blending realities, having stuff exist in this world that also exists in Nao’s. Even if they were to be just a small run of promotional things, so I was over the moon when Selfmade Hero agreed to do a limited edition of the frogslegs toy… and then there’s something else in the pipeline, I can’t talk about yet, which is really exciting.
By the way, the “frogslegs” toy is now available to buy, it’s a limited edition of 300 - if you’re interested just email email@example.com It’s retailing for £39:95 (GBP) .
Nrama: Was the story-within-the-story of Pictor something you created specifically for the GN, or was this something you’d developed earlier -- and if so, did you modify your initial idea to fit into this story?Dillon: As I said, originally it was going to be Gregory and his relationship to this Anime/Manga/other world, so yeah, things were all bubbling along at a similar time.
It was always part of the plan that Gregory was going to be obsessed with something Japanese, and then as these things grew, they shifted about a bit before falling into place, and it became Nao’s big thing.
Nrama: Having returned to comics from film and TV, what are some things you’ve found you can do in comics that you can’t do in those media, and vice versa?
Dillon: Maybe it sounds obvious but with storyboarding you don’t have to think about page composition, you just have the same 16:9 or 2:35 frame ratio to worry about. I can do anywhere between 15-25 storyboarding frames per day, so I figured when starting the book, I should be able to draw at least two pages a day.
But I hadn’t taken into account the composing of the page and the fact that I wasn’t being “directed.” It’s all a lot quicker and easier when someone is telling you what they want. Working out exactly what you want yourself and being able to commit to it takes a bit longer.
Things like directing the eye over the page, with the layout and word balloons, all those kind of comics storytelling things, I loved coming back to all that …and simple things like having tall thin panels to play with.
Nrama: Though your artwork is very distinct from your father and brother’s work, what do you feel you have in common with them creatively?Dillon: Well, I don’t know, I suppose we all like to have a go at anything, or at least sometimes…. Dad’s only really started painting again in the last few years, since retiring and now that he’s finished the “family history” project he’d been working on for years.
But when he did work, his trade was sign-writing and being a “pictorial artist.” He’d paint pub signs and signs for shop-fronts but he’d also paint the giant adverts on the side of vans before the days of photographic enlargements.
Before retiring he worked in the local museum and to accompany certain exhibits there, he built, amongst other things, the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon… and a perfect replica of a Fender Stratocaster that was about 12 ft tall, with the neck pretending to smash through the ceiling.
It’s been a long time since I lived with my brother, but growing up with him, he was able to turn his hand to anything too, he’d make these great little plasticine sculpts of characters from Planet of the Apes, sewing in their hair using black cotton… and he even made Batman and Robin outfits for my Action Man (G.I. Joe), sewing them himself – they were perfect.
Actually, the whole family would get involved in any fancy dress outfits – I don’t think Americans call it “fancy dress”, I think the equivalent is “costume party” or “Cosplay” these days.
Anyway, my mum is a brilliant seamstress and my sister’s pretty good with a needle, so there’d be a team attitude with everyone chipping in. For one particular party, the Silver Jubilee in 1977, aged about six I went as Mt Everest, on my bike with a white sheet, that covered the bike entirely, with the aid of wires… and I had an Action Man in mountaineering gear, stuck to my head clasping the British flag.
So I think we all share in common that urge to make stuff, whatever that may be.
And I still harbor a dream for doing a bit of topiary at some point.Nrama: What are some other comics and creators you”re currently reading and enjoying right now?
Dillon: My constants are Moebius, Jaime Hernandez, Katsuhiro Otomo and Hayao Miyazaki but I’m really enjoying Michael DeForge’s stuff, I loved Mike Dawson’s Troop 142, Rob Davis’ Don Quixote is excellent, Joe Decie’s stuff is my idea of perfect.
I just heard Warwick Johnson Cadwell is going to be doing the new version of Tank Girl with Alan Martin, so I’m really looking forward to that. I’m a massive, massive fan of Jillian Tamaki and Eleanor Davis, Frederick Peeters, Patrick McEown’s Hairshirt I loved, anything by Tonci Zonjic… all of Luke Pearson’s output… Ian Culbard’s At the Mountains of Madness, I could go on, there’s so much great stuff about at the moment.
Nrama: What’s next for you?
Dillon: The short answer is lots of storyboarding... and maybe a little bit of teaching, which I hadn’t really considered before.
But comic-wise I’m thinking about an adaptation I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’m also thinking I might expand upon the “ichi” universe, if it proves popular, because I had a lot of fun doing that.
And of course topiary is never far from my mind.Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
Dillon: Actually, yes. In the book, the “ichi” pages, the story within the story, (are) done by the fictional, half-French half-Japanese character Gil Ichiyama. I really wanted to make that stuff as different as possible to the main artwork and my heroes Moebius and Miyazaki were big influences for those pages.
And just in case anyone missed it, there’s a website Nao and Steve look at in the book, which shows an animated teaser trailer for the new “ichi” series. I really wanted to make that website for real, as another layer of “crossover reality” along with the “frogslegs” toy etc. I made the animation with James Coore and Seb Monk, some of the guys who worked on all the Gorillaz videos.
You can find the web address in the book, there’s merchandise on there, an interview with Gil Ichiyama and there’s even a hidden Easter egg on the site which relates to Nao’s younger days.
The Nao of Brown is in stores now.