Suburbia, visual degeneration, the Guinness Book of Records, crayons. Gareth Brookes’s new graphic novel A Thousand Castles is a vision of the abnormality of everyday existence made even stranger by Brookes’s decision to use crayon as his medium. The result looks unlike any other graphic novel we can think of, although Brookes has previous in that regard. His award-winning debut The Black Project was a realised in linocut relief print and embroidery. Brookes has a fine art background but with his graphic novels he is also showing himself to be an ambitious and capable graphic novelist. Here, he answers questions about his art, the Pet Shop Boys and why the National Gallery is full of comic strips.

First question, crayons? I mean, crayons? Was it a dare? Are they easier/harder to work with than pencils, paint or embroidery? 

Crayons are very easy to work with, they don’t get all over your clothes and you can spill beer all over your drawing and it doesn’t matter because they’re water resistant.

Like comics themselves crayons are dismissed as being only for children, but actually they’re a very interesting and versatile media.

The idea to use crayons came from remembering being about six and being at school and on Bonfire Night they made you do these drawings where you would cover a sheet of paper with a rainbow of crayoned colours and then you had to get a black crayon and go over the top until the whole sheet was black, then you would scrape away with the sharp end of a compass and the colour beneath would be revealed. I wondered if I could use that technique to create images of anything other than fireworks.  

What were the origins of A Thousand Coloured Castles? What fed into the story?

As with The Black Project, the town I grew up in was a big influence, I also wanted to write about elderly people, explore their attitudes and people’s attitudes to them. A big part of the book is the condition Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which my Grandma suffered from. Being a bad Grandson I only had one brief conversation with my Grandma about what she was experiencing, but her answer haunted me for years, and some of those experiences have made it into the book.

Are you a suburban kid? Is that where your interest in it comes from? And do you know all the words to the Pet Shop Boys song of the same name?

While I’m not a huge fan, Suburbia is by far my favourite Pet Shop Boys song, there’s a bit that goes;

Stood by the bus stop with a felt pen
In this suburban hell
And in the distance a police car
To break the suburban spell

…Which captures the frustrated creative potential of the felt tip-brandishing youth, and the ever-present threat of encroaching reality represented by the police siren.

For me suburbia is a place that’s specially designed so that nothing can happen, good or bad, and there’s a kind of post-war anxiety that everything should be nice now, that still hangs over suburban towns. One of the events that take place in A Thousand Coloured Castles (the one that involves the police) actually happened in the town I grew up in, although no one seems to be able to remember it. I was about nine or 10 and remember the media descending on the town for a single day and the same thing being said over and over: “How could this happen in this leafy town.” Or “in this seemingly leafy street,” as if leaves had some strange talismanic property that prevented badness from occurring. Such leaf-based delusion creates terrible anxiety. People in leafy suburbs are horribly frightened of terrorism and immigration. In my opinion, leaf anxiety has been politically mobilised in the past two or three years to the detriment of all.

The Herald:

The idea of illusion intertwined with reality is woven into A Thousand Coloured Castles. Presumably the comics form really lends itself to that?

Absolutely. Comics are a unique narrative form in that everything the reader experiences comes through the human hand, which means that every aspect is subjective. Other storytelling medium like films or theatre use real things like people or locations to create a fiction, and only certain things about this fiction can be manipulated. Even in written forms like novels the typeset is unchanging and has a kind of objective authority about it.

In novels you can have an unreliable narrator, but in comics you can also have an unreliable artist. The reader’s experience of time can be influenced through panel structure too. Indeed, every aspect that constitutes the comics form can be simultaneously manipulated to disorientate or mislead, which somehow feels like the world we are living in today.

I really wanted the book to be a story that only comics could tell, a visual story where reality is indistinguishable form hallucination.

What kind of research did you need to do into the medical aspects of the narrative?

I met with a chap called Dr Dominic Ffytche at Kings College Hospital who’s a leading specialist on Charles Bonnet Syndrome. He really helped me get inside the experience of CBS, and my conversations with him gave me the confidence to experiment with the visual themes that characterise the condition. He really encouraged me to push myself to develop a visual language that represented the experience. It’s such a strange and endlessly fascinating phenomenon. Nothing I imagined or invented could possibly match the reality of the condition for its utter bizarreness.

What do you love about the comics form? How did you get interested in it? What did it offer you that your art practice didn’t? Or what did it add?

I’m from the generation that grew up in the 1980s and comics were just always around. You’d start off with Rupert, be hiding Whizzer and Chips from your teacher at school, and end up getting all clammy and confused reading Durham Red in 2000AD. Then later, at art school, I got into Daniel Clowes and Michael Kupperman.

I first started making comics with my friend Steve Tillotson shortly after we graduated from The RCA. Comics were just more fun than fine art, and it was a relief to be doing something that didn’t feel like art with a capital A. You could tell stories and make simple, direct statements without the vultures of interpretation swooping down to pick over what you’d done before you’d even finished.

Once you really get into comics you realise how much you can do, the tensions you can create between word and image. The poetics you can create with the rhythm of panels. It feels like so much has never been tried in comics, and that the greatest works are perhaps still to be created. At the same time if you think about sequential art in the broader sense there’s such a rich history there. The National Gallery is full of medieval art and northern renaissance paintings that just are comics. I don’t care what anyone says, they are!

Back to the crayons. You’ve also used embroidery and linocut in your graphic novels. Do you like challenging yourself? Are you trying to make it more difficult for yourself?

I think making art should be difficult, I always feel that it’s more creative to be outside my comfort zone, to be struggling and always on the point of failure. The idea of getting up in the morning and knowing that what I’m drawing is going to work, is boring to the point of atrophy. I think anyone who knows what they’re doing isn’t an artist of any kind.

One of things I did take with me from art school is the idea that the form and medium you use carries with it part of the message. So in The Black Project the embroidery and lino was intended to give it a very D.I.Y look as well as allowing me to bring in decorative elements that were redolent of the protagonist’s middle class surroundings.

With this book the effect of the crayons is quite fuzzy and out of focus which is intended to represent the sight loss of the main character. Hopefully there’s an uncanny atmosphere to it as well, which creates the tension that helps these visions appear tangible.

What is your favourite entry in the Guinness Book of Records anyway? 

That would be the record for Most People Brushing Their Teeth Simultaneously, currently held by 10,800 students in the Philippines.

The Herald:

A Thousand Coloured Castles, by Gareth Brookes, is published by Myriad Editions on Thursday, priced £17.99.