Creating Comics: Behind the Scenes on “The Marionette Unit” with James Boyle, Azhur Saleem and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell

The Marionette Unit - Cover

Recently released, The Marionette Unit is a stunning, creepy and thoroughly enjoyable new Victorian mystery story, a graphic novel created by filmmakers Azhur Saleem and James Boyle, and illustrated by ace comic artist Warwick Johnson-Cadwell (Tank Girl, Gungle, Nelson, 24×7, Off-Life).

We haven’t had opportunity to review the book here at downthetubes yet – it’s sitting near the top of the dangerously tottering pile – but suffice to say, it’s a powerfully-told  story, one that skitters uncomfortably around in your head hours after reading it. Warwick’s visuals are entirely attuned to the gothic horror of the script, the comics equivalent of nails scratched across a blackboard.

Here’s some background to this terrifying tale from the creators.

How far would you go in search of a missing loved one? Could you infiltrate a hellish Victorian workhouse where steam-powered engines control your body?

If so, then enter the world of The Marionette Unit; a time of control, obsession and monstrous machines.

Beatrice Shaw is searching for her missing sister, Melodie, last seen employed at a workhouse run by shadowy industrialist, Henri Dubré inventor of The Marionette Units. He has forged man and machine together to create an abominable dream of never-ending efficiency. As Beatrice enters this terrifying world, she must find a way to break free of the clutches around her and confront Dubré before all hope is lost of ever finding her sister again…

downthetubes: Could you explain the world of The Marionette Unit for us?

James Boyle: The world of The Marionette Unit is an alternative take on Victorian London. Set in 1847, imagine a time where steam technology as opposed to electricity has become the prevalent form of power; airships, gyrocopters and steam powered vehicles are everywhere, with that this world is grimy, textured, and contains mysterious characters at every turn.

Azhur Saleem: The titular machine, a Marionette Unit, is a large steam-powered engine that connects into the bodies of workers so it can fully control your movements. There’s no need to train your workforce, just literally plug them in and see them get to work.
This is an industrialist’s dream of total efficiency.

With the story in this graphic novel, we follow Beatrice Shaw as she searches for her missing sister, Melodie. Beatrice has learnt that she was last seen entering a mysterious workhouse in south-east London, run by a shadowy industrialist called Henri Dubré. Beatrice is convinced he has had something to do with her disappearance and she won’t stop at anything until she finds her.

downthetubes: It’s a unique mix of sci-fi and period, where did you draw inspiration from?

James: For myself and Azhur, science fiction is a massive love, which stemmed into this world. The idea and inspiration came as a “what if?” question. What if steam power was bigger than electricity? What if the modern assembly line was created in Victorian London? But with humans being the machines.

Azhur: Interestingly we first termed our genre ‘Victorian Sci-fi’ and it was only after we began working on the story that we were introduced to the world of Steampunk. I’ve always had a fascination of mixing two differing times together and this sub-genre was perfect to realise the world of The Marionette Unit in.

downthetubes: You’re a new team in the comics world, why did you want to tell this story in the art form?

James: Both Azhur and I are very visual people, as a writer/director Azhur has a unique way of looking at the world, which helps create his vision for projects, and as a producer/designer my approach has always been in creating visual stories in realistic ways.

When we started The Marionette Unit project around 2008 having part of that story told in sequential art form was always on the cards. We felt that the combination of a unique sci-fi story, alternative period setting and human and machines fused together screamed out for beautiful artwork. A single image which captures all these elements is a great start, partner that with a page turning story and The Marionette Unit graphic novel was born.

Azhur: For a world like this, no matter how cool we think it is, on a broad scale it might be hard for some people to take seriously and suspend their disbelief. Therefore tone is very important in a relatively niche genre that we’re working in. We were both adamant in making something that would be gritty and textured. After all, Victorian London wasn’t a pleasant place to be at the best of times – especially if you had no money. We wanted to get across that sense of hardship amid the Victorian sci-fi genre without delving into campiness.

The graphic novel form was a perfect place to practice and hone that and let our imaginations go with no limits. Here we could tell a contained, character-based story but encompass it with grand and terrifying visuals.

downthetubes: You’re both experienced filmmakers. What has transitioning from film to comics been like? Has your past experience informed this project?

James: The transition has been – trying to not sound big headed – fairly easy. One of the things working in the creative industries, in our case film, teaches you is about taking ideas then executing and delivering them. Working in film has taught me two great skills which are directly applicable to the comics industry; the understanding of story and characters and delivering upon a promise/idea/project. I would say the biggest challenge of creating a comic for the first time was understanding the process; script to roughs to inks to colour pages. It is very different to film and took an adjustment to my thinking and expectations.

Azhur: As a director, one of the steps I take when realising a script to the screen is the process of storyboarding. I’ll break down each scene and start to visualise it first in my head, then on paper. The process of working in the comics was really no different, except here I didn’t need to worry about building a giant set or hiring over 200 extras! I could literally set my imagination free when beginning the process of visualising the story.

One element of filmmaking is that you can say a lot with one glance, or one head turn.

It can imbue a conversation with the subtext you’re looking for. This is something that I had to continually remind myself would not work as simply in the comic form! This forced me to create as much physical action with the characters that would help to bring about the subtext I was looking for.

downthetubes: How did you come to team with WJC as the artist… and what has the process of working together been like?

James: Warwick was someone who we were aware of as fans of independent comics, we felt his art style would fit the tone and story perfectly. We were introduced to him by Daniel Humphry at Offlife who agreed that it would be a great fit. As our debut release, our first foray in publishing and coming from a film background, it took a little while to get into a working rhythm for production. But once we all settled in we found the process quite straight forward and looked forward to the end of the week immensely when new pages went up on the shared folder.

Azhur: I had come across Warwick’s work when I bought some of his work from the East End Comics Festival and loved his style. I also bought a sample book of his which had a lot of references to movies that I loved from the 1980s and 90s. So when it came time to choosing the right artist, we felt that Warwick would be perfect for it. He has a really unique look which immediately stands out from a lot of other artists. We’re so excited that he’s been a part of the process in realising this world.

Warwick Johnson-Cadwell: In terms of the story, I love the Victorian era, it is a great setting for Olden Days stories yet has a firm and lively base for science fiction to work. What drew me to the project was the script and the enthusiasm of Az and James.

downthetubes: Warwick, How was the process of working with a film/screen writer?

Warwick: Good fun. My tendency is to draw narratives with a cinematic or theatrical view in mind. My compositions and character direction are often influenced by screen images then applied to the comic frame. I very much enjoy the process of storytelling and translating a cinematic piece onto the page is a great experience.

downthetubes: What was your vision for interpreting the story?

Warwick: What I really want is for Az and James’ vision to be clear through their story. I wanted my enthusiasm for the story to be apparent but I wanted to show the reader the sights and workings of the writers created world.

downthetubes: What would you like readers to take away from your visuals?

Warwick: I hope that readers will finish the story having felt they have met new characters and visited a place that they had not been to before. Finding them engaging, intriguing and hopefully leaving them keen to return.

downthetubes: James, Azhur — what are your hopes for this title? Are you interested to continue publishing comics after The Marionette Unit?

James: Of course we’d love to sell millions of copies and win copious awards, but removing the wishful thinking for a moment, my hope is it finds an audience who loves it as much as I do, connects with the characters to want to see the story continue. I’d love to continue publishing comics after The Marionette Unit, whether that is more stories in the TMU world, or different projects.

“One of the things I love about the creative industries is the breadth of voices coming to the form and telling creator driven stories which they love.

Azhur: We have a whole breadth of stories (and backstory!) to this world that we’ve created; how and why the machines were invented; the way politics shaped its evolution and so on. A whole gallery of characters are ready and waiting for their stories to be told. I hope that there’s enough support and love for this first graphic novel that we’re able to continue telling the story and letting it branch out and introduce a wider world.

This is my first time having written a comic and I would personally love to continue doing this. It’s quite refreshing to be able to write something and not keep in the back of your mind the limits of production and feasibility of shooting a film. Wether this is still with the TMU world or with another title entirely I’d be excited either way.

•  You can read our review of The Marionette Unit here

The Marionette Unit is available in a digital edition as a direct hi-res download, available in PDF, ePub, CBR and CBZ formats, or in the print edition that includes exclusive artwork, character sketches and making of process


It’s available in all good bookshops and comic shops, but you can also order it direct from the publisher and find out more about the book at www.themarionetteunit.com

• The Marionette Unit is available from the following comic stores. Orbital Comics (London) – Gosh! (London) – Chaos City Comics (St. Albans) – The Cartoon Museum (London) – Forbidden Planet (London) and Travelling Man (Manchester, Leeds, York and Newcastle)

• Follow TMU Workshop on Twitter @tmuworkshop | Facebook | Instagram

• Azhur Saleem: www.azhursaleem.com

• James Boyle: www.parkroadpictures.com

• Warwick Johnson Cadwell: warwickjohnsoncadwell.blogspot.co.uk

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a "freelance comics operative", currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY. John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor. He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY. Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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