James Peaty knew he wanted to be a graphic novelist since he was three. Today, James is an author, having worked with giants like DC Comics, Marvel Comics, 2000ad and for Titan Comics’ Doctor Who line.
“I think comics have a real power when it comes to juxtaposition, but the main thing it can do is to get the readers brain working on multiple different tracks. You have a visual aspect, a narrative aspect, but you can also have a poetic aspect too and I think that’s something comics can do really well,” he says.
His most recent book is ‘Chanakya: Of serpents and Kings’, where he brings alive the story of India’s own Machiavelli.
In a freewheeling conversation with Youth Ki Awaaz, Peaty spoke about the book, India’s graphic novel scene and why he feels parents shouldn’t stop their children from reading comics.
Shikha Sharma (SS): Have you always wanted to work in comics? Which were your favourites when you were growing up?
James Peaty (JP): Yes, I always wanted to work in comics. I remember reading a book of Batman stories from the 30s to the 70s when I was about three and thinking: ‘That’s what I want to be!’
Now back then, that may have meant I wanted to be Batman (who wouldn’t!), but the older I got, the more I became interested in the names of the writers and artists on the various comics I read. Also, comics and graphic novels became a big deal around the mid-80s thanks to books like Watchmen, Swamp Thing and The Dark Knight Returns.
Thanks to the success of those books, writers, such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller were suddenly visible figures in pop culture, and so, for the first time, working in comics seemed like something you could actually do for a living.
SS: What do you look for when you’re creating a world? Does the freedom of fiction ever daunt you?
JP: Not really. Creating a world is a lot of fun. The hardest thing is coming up with characters and stories. For me, that’s a lot harder than world-building.
SS: What do you consider to be the particular powers of the medium and what distinguishes it from other narrative forms?
JP: There are so many! I think comics have a real power when it comes to juxtaposition, but the main thing it can do is to get the readers brain working on multiple different tracks. You have a visual aspect, a narrative aspect, but you can also have a poetic aspect too and I think that’s something comics can do really well.
The power of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman or even Garth Ennis’ best work taps into that odd alchemical mixture of the intimacy of POV, and the enormity of visual scale, that only comics can really do. Cinema can do that up to a point, maybe modern long form TV can to some extent too, but I’d say only comics can have those two competing elements sitting side by side in perfect balance.
SS: What inspired you to create Chanakya? Could you take us behind the creative process for this work?
JP: Chanakya was a project I was approached to work on, so it was very much me responding to the brief from Campfire. The process was that I wrote a very long treatment of the book (basically a page by page, beat by beat outline) and wrote the script based on that outline. It was quite a systematic approach, but the nature of the book – that balancing of intimacy and scale that I mentioned above – meant that I needed a strong road map to keep me on track.
SS: How was working on Chanakya different?
JP: Mainly the above really. I rarely write treatments that long or detailed, but for this book – especially as I was dealing with a publisher/editor with whom I hadn’t previously worked – it seemed the most appropriate way to go about it. And it worked really well. I wouldn’t do it for every project, but for this one it was perfect.
SS: What kind of research went into this novel?
JP: A fair bit. I read several books covering (or purporting to cover) this era that we know very little about. There’s a Sanskrit play – Rakshasha’s Ring – which I read which was very helpful for the middle of the story. But mostly you just have to try and put all that aside and carve out your own version of the story you’re telling.
The biggest influence on the book was actually the famous BBC version of I, Claudius from the 1970s. Totally different period (that’s set in Imperial Rome), but there was something about the way that show portrayed the past and the sense of history as a drama that I wanted to tap into. I’m not saying Chanakya is anything like as good as that masterwork, but that was a definite inspiration.
SS: You have a very natural voice-in-head writing style. Which comes first for you in the process? The words or the image?
JP: I don’t really separate them, to be honest. For me, I think it’s neither word nor image that’s the most important, but rather rhythm that’s crucial to how I write. I spend ages trying to get the right rhythmic interplay between words and image and then having that move from image to image and then page to page.
It’s a lot like songwriting or recording music, in a way in that you’re layering tracks of information against each other, to create a cumulative effective. I have no idea if that makes sense, but that’s how I think about it!
SS: I had a colleague the other day who told me that his mom doesn’t let him read graphic novels. It totally bummed me out. So I’m curious, what would you say to parents about the importance of graphic novels?
JP: I’d say don’t get bummed out! But seriously: comics and graphic novels are a really vibrant and potent form of storytelling that is only growing in visibility and importance over time. Crucially, I think comics as a medium are now seen as a legitimate adjunct of the book world, which has been a big cultural shift in my lifetime, but a welcome one!
So what I’d say to parents is this: never discourage your kids from reading anything as you never know what that material will lead them towards. I learnt about so many writers, artists, filmmakers, scientists, politicians and thinkers through reading comics that it led me to seek out their work on its own merits. Anything that stimulates a broad and varied cultural interest can only be a good thing. And comics and graphic novels are very much a good thing!
SS: What do you think about the graphic novel scene in India?
JP: I think it’s like most things in India: it’s growing and becoming much more globally important and vital. I think the future looks very bright indeed for the Indian graphic novel industry.