There is a long standing tradition of anthropomorphic characters in British Comics with characters like Tiger Tim and the Bruin Boys, who pre-date the First World War, and perhaps the best known of all, the slightly younger Rupert Bear. Most of these mainly humorous stories are, or were, aimed at children and featured human-sized characters, however MULP is different in that it is a ‘feature-length’ all-ages adventure story with mouse characters that really are mouse-sized.
This furry take on an Indiana Jones adventure impressed from the beginning with its long-form plot, imaginative art, and high quality printing. With the second issue of MULP due to be launched at Thought Bubble 2015, and the series now part of the Improper Books family of titles, downthetube’s Jeremy Briggs spoke to Matt and Sara about their work.
Downthetubes: How did you both get into comics?
Sara Dunkerton: I think I have always known that I wanted to draw. I spent my entire childhood with my nose in a book and would regularly draw scenes or characters from the story, so it’s by no accident that I’ve gotten into illustrating comics.
From a young age I read ancient hand-me-down Beano, Peanuts, and Garfield annuals which inspired me to create my own characters and short comic strips. In my teens I read a lot of Manga, such as Fruits Basket and Love Hina, and again tried to emulate the more complex form of visual storytelling. However, I quickly discovered that writing wasn’t my forte, so I concentrated on the art. I then read Batman: Hush which introduced me to DC Comics and Marvel, and a much more integral understanding of how the visual narrative works, and an intrigue into the various techniques both in the comic making process and the structure of a page.
Certainly the learning hasn’t stopped and I believe it never will. I am constantly picking up new titles that catch my eye and discovering new techniques in visual storytelling and in the process of my own art. My most recent sources of inspiration come from Mouse Guard, Blacksad, Grandville, and Saga.
Matt Gibbs: I’ve always enjoyed reading comics, but I didn’t start writing or editing them until my good friend Corey Brotherson (Clockwork Watch, Magic of Myths) suggested submitting scripts to a few anthologies while we were working together at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. I’d been writing various features and short films, to varying degrees of success, and relished the opportunity to explore my ideas in a different medium… So, I blame Corey entirely!
As a child, I read an eclectic range of comics, but the standout ones for me were Marvel UK’s Spider-Man and Zoids, which I must admit I read for the Zoids, as well as Transformers and Dragon’s Claws, before getting properly to grips with 2000AD and Sandman.
As for more recent titles, the same as Sara, I’m a huge fan of Blacksad, Grandville, and Mouse Guard. In addition, I very much enjoy Beasts of Burden, Fables, and Y: The Last Man.
DTT: How did you meet?
Matt: We met thanks to Jennie Gyllblad (Clockwork Watch, Skal). I attended Jennie’s University of the West of England (UWE) degree show in London, which Sara was also exhibiting her illustrations at, and following the event I contacted Sara, via Jennie, about working together on a short for the Bayou Arcana anthology.
Sara: Jennie and I both studied Illustration at Bristol UWE and, just as Matt said, we were given the opportunity to exhibit our third year work at the Coningsby Gallery in London. Matt and I weren’t introduced the night of the private opening, which was when Jennie brought him and Corey Brotherson along. But I did get an email shortly afterwards from some writer guy who liked my wolf illustrations, from there the rest is history!
DTT: Matt, with such a large cast of characters in MULP did you have a shorthand way of describing each of them to Sara for her to flesh them out, or did you leave that up to her?
Matt: I did provide a guide to each of the characters, but that was heavily focused on their personalities and attitudes, on their talents, rather than any rigid physical descriptions of each character. We did pin down the type of rodent for each character together, such as Jack being a Yellow-Necked Mouse and Victoria a Deer Mouse, but beyond that it was all Sara… And, right from the outset, she nailed each and every character perfectly.
Sara: The idea that the characters would be mouse-sized in a larger world environment was set down from the very start, right from Matt’s first pitch of mice excavating a human skull! With that in mind I wanted to keep the design of the mice as grounded in reality as possible, so rather than starting with a generic base and a few distinguishing features I modelled each character on a different species of rodent. This gave each character a different ear shape, fur colour, body structure, etc, and ensured that one was easily distinguishable from the other.
Our story is set in the mid-1930s, if mice had evolved the same way we have, and so the clothing had to be researched extensively and designed specifically to complement the character profiles provided by Matt; Jack needed to look the adventuring hero, the Professor needed to look academic, etc. The costume is as much integral to portraying the character’s individuality as the actual facial/body design, even down to the fact that each character has their own colour scheme. This was to ensure that even if Jack changed his clothes you’d recognise him for the one that wears blue and brown.
As the main characters travel from country to country, we’ve even gone as far as researching the indigenous species of rodent to those countries. As one human civilisation is different from the other, I wanted to create that same sense of culture and variation in our mice!
DTT: Sara, given the level of detail in each coloured panel how do you create your pages, how do you colour them, and on average how long does each take?
Sara: I use a combination of traditional and digital techniques to illustrate MULP. I ink over my pencils traditionally using a dip ink pen and Indian ink, I then lay in a wash over the inks which instantly adds some tonal definition for when I take it into Photoshop to add the colour.
I use various blending modes and combinations of textures to build up the background and then I digitally paint in the details on layers under the line work using a variety of custom brushes. To tie the whole illustration together, I then lay a natural paper texture on top of everything, which sits the digitally added colours into the textured backgrounds and gives everything an overall traditional feel.
As to how long this process of colouring takes, it can vary depending on the intricacy of each panel and the quantity of panels on each page. I generally tend to pencil, ink, and ink wash all pages before I start on the colouring. On average though I can colour between 2 and 3 pages in a day.
DTT: The idea that these mice are mice-sized is actually part of the plot of issue 1. Matt, was it always planned to be this way and Sara, what difficulties did creating a mouse-sized world present for you?
Matt: That was always our intention from the outset. After collaborating on the Bayou Arcana short together, we began discussing potential longer projects, and rapidly discovered we both have a love, probably obsession, with anthropomorphic stories, especially those involving mice and rats. It was one image that sparked the entire idea behind MULP for us – mice archaeologists digging up a human skull in the Egyptian desert. From that one image the whole story of the Sceptre of the Sun unfolded; hence the importance of our mice being mouse-sized in a real, but alternate version of our history.
Sara: I touched on this previously while talking about character design, however I didn’t see any difficulties as such while creating our mouse made world, rather puzzles that were fun to solve! We needed to subtly re-enforce scale where we could, and did so in the palm trees of Egypt and the oak tree behind the British Museum, and of course the human skull at the excavation site, and even (much more subtly) down to the large gravelly texture of the sand!
The only other problems presented themselves in the methods and materials that the rodents would build and function with in their world. So being too small to mine and smith large amounts of metal their vehicles are mostly made from wood. They have domesticated creatures such as beetles and lizards (who also dwell in their world) to help them work the land and to ride on. And though they grow fruit and veg it is regular sized, so the mice sell it by the slice or weight, as you would purchase items from a deli counter.
Matt: Issue 2 is about to make its convention debut at Thought Bubble, in Leeds, on the 14/15 November. But as to how far we’re ahead of publication, the script for issue 3 is pretty much done, barring a few minor tweaks and editorial notes based on feedback from our editor Luke Foster, while the whole story arc of the five issues is pretty much set in stone now. Sara’s just working on some of the new concepts for issue 3, based on the new locations our mice will explore…
Sara: Our mice travel even further abroad in issue 3, which presents itself with a host of new design challenges. Such as how mice would tackle an arctic expedition?
Matt and I also have ideas for more MULP stories beyond the Sceptre of the Sun arc; we’d like to explore the rodent cultures of Japan and there’s also an untold story about Jack and Cornelius in Belgium!
DTT: Matt and Sara, thank-you for taking the time to talk to us.
• There are more details of MULP: Sceptre Of The Sun on the MULP website
• Copies of issues 1 and 2 of MULP are not available directly from the website but can be ordered by mail order from the list of shops that stock it
• There are more details of Matt Gibbs’ work on his website
• There are more details of Sara Dunkerton’s work on her blog
• Matt and Sara will be at Thought Bubble in Leeds over the weekend of 14/15 November 2015 where they will be selling and signing copies of MULP 1 and 2. They will be at the Improper Books sales table which will be located in the New Dock Hall, tables 47 and 48