The Nao of Brown
A little imagination can be a dangerous thing. What if you snapped your taxi driver’s neck? Stabbed your meditation instructor in the jugular with your pen? Mowed down a kid with your bike? Or opened the emergency door on a plane and let all the passengers be sucked out to their deaths? Nao (pronounced like ‘now’) is a ‘hafu’, the petite daughter of an English mother and an absentee Japanese father, and she has a secret: violent notions unexpectedly swamp her mind. As she confesses, “I get awful thoughts ...… that just hit me ...… like a fucking hammer to the head.” To protect herself, and others, from her Purely Obsessional Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (POCD), Nao hides behind rituals, like repeating the mantra “Mum loves me” or locking the cutlery drawer. She is also trying meditation, though she is always judging herself so harshly, while idealising her teachers and fellow students as wholly and impossibly good.
A dazzling, daring graphic novel of over 200 pages, The Nao of Brown marks the return to comics of Glyn Dillon after 15 years of mainly storyboarding and concept design, and struggling to get personal film and TV proposals to the screen. This is also his first work in the medium as a writer. What started in 2008 as an idea for a spare-time project mushroomed into a year’s obsession, filling almost every waking hour, requiring such intensive work that Dillon wound up in hospital two weeks after completing it.
Dillon does not suffer from OCD himself, but his wife did as a child and into her late teens. “The mental rituals she would use to try and counteract her negative thoughts were very similar to Nao’s. My wife has been a great sounding board for understanding what is sometimes quite difficult to get a grasp on. I wanted to do a book for someone who has OCD and doesn’t need it explaining to them.” For the reader, exactly as for Nao herself, a morbid imagining can spring up out of nowhere, conveyed by a jolting cut from one panel to the next, from normality to nightmare, sometimes on the turn of a page, other times signalled by a visual clue, as when, for example, the colour red fills Nao up and then turns her all white as she literally blanks out. “Her outfit, face, hair, everything becomes colourless, to give that feeling that she’s not really there any more, she’s retreated into herself.”
Art offers some solace to Nao, whether she’s enjoying Japanese pop culture or drawing her own designs. Everything changes when she meets a big, burly, bearded washing-machine repairman at Peoploids, the cool Soho toyshop where she works. Gregory becomes a new obsession because he resembles Nao’s favourite character, the Nothing from Ichi, Dillon’s invented manga and anime series. Their awkward, endearing relationship develops, riven with tensions as each harbours secrets from the other.
Parallel to this main narrative which is more loosely pencilled and watercoloured, Dillon interweaves an allegorical fantasy, illustrating in tight ink and flat colours in the guise of his make-believe alter ego, Gil Ichiyama, another ‘hafu’, half Moebius, half Hayao Miyazaki. Using both styles, ‘Charles & Maureen’, the new Strip for Art Review (see below after interview), offers another tantalising glimpse into the synaptic leaps which Nao’s overactive mind can make.
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And here’s the extended interview which Glyn Dillon kindly afforded me, with any major spoiler alerts hopefully minimised.
Paul Gravett: Why Japan? That’s a broad question I know, but a lot of Japanese elements come through this book?
Glyn Dillon: Quite simply ‘Nao’, the name of the title character… A friend of mine introduced me to his new Japanese girlfriend who was called Nao (pronounced the same as now) and I thought it was such a cool name, a great play on words, a great name for a character. But I do love Japan, I tagged along with my wife once, while she was working there, I’d always wanted to go. I found it fascinating and I’m a big fan of Japanese art and design in general. And then after starting to write the book I absorbed myself in some manga, which I’d been meaning to do for ages. I’d read Akira and Appleseed back in the early nineties but I knew little else about it. The artist Tonci Zonjic gave me a good reading list and I gradually worked my way through it, all great stuff.
Nao is a ‘hafu’ - did you consider explaining any more about her Japanese father or have him figure in the story more at all?
He’s very much an absent father and I think the dynamic she has with him goes some way towards explaining why she has trouble in her own relationships. But also not being Japanese myself, I wanted Nao to feel that she was more British than Japanese, so I would be more able to understand and represent her character honestly… yet she would obviously have this other half of her that she wrestles with getting to know… and like myself, she’s very much drawn to the Japanese aesthetic.
What sort of research did you do into Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) of this kind that Nao suffers from?
I read three books on the subject, I got all the films I could find that featured OCD in some way (not many). There’s a lot of good forums on the internet and I visited a group session for people and their families who suffer or have suffered with it . And I also discovered the amazing artist/writer Justin Green [author of Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary in 1972].
Did you have any connections to someone with this problem?
My wife suffered with it as a child and then into her late teens, not the same obsessions as the character Nao, but the mental rituals she would use to try and counteract her negative thoughts were very similar to Nao’s. My wife has been a great sounding board for understanding the nature of what is sometimes quite difficult to really get a grasp on. Apparently one in a hundred people suffer with OCD to some degree or another, but that figure could be higher because a lot of sufferers don’t understand it or are not willing to admit it.
Why did you decide not to explain the roots of Nao’s OCD too explicitly?
The kind of OCD Nao suffers with is POCD (Purely Obsessional Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and it’s common for the sufferers to be very secretive about it, I think mainly because there’s shame and fear involved. And of course because there’s no outwardly visible compulsions (like hand washing, checking or counting etc) it’s much easier to keep hidden. So from the start I wanted Nao to give away as little as possible, even if it meant the average reader might not quite get what was going on straight away. She’s going through therapy, having to do ‘homework’... but I didn’t want to include too much of that either. I didn’t want it to all be about the OCD. One of the films I watched as research, Dirty Filthy Love starring Michael Sheen and the wonderful Shirley Henderson, did a very good job of explaining what OCD is, and how it can affect sufferers - but it also made my realise I didn’t want to do a book like that, a book that explained OCD, I wanted to do a book that was for someone who has OCD and doesn’t need it explaining to them.
Could you envisage your book helping those suffering with OCD or those caring/treating them?
I would absolutely love it, if it helped or gave any kind of comfort to someone suffering with it, or any family members or caregivers that have to deal with OCD. That was definitely my hope when I started out.
I like the way you don’t forewarn the reader when Nao’s morbid imaginings kick in, no wobbly borders or change in style - it’s as seamless and sudden as her own lurch in her thinking. What was your strategy in how to spring these sudden morbid ideas on the reader?
There’s one line when she’s explaining to Gregory what it’s like… something along the lines of “...it just fucking hits me…”. So they really had to come out of the blue like that, sometimes with no warning whatsoever, often on a page turn if the pagination allowed. Other times there might be some indication of a feeling of discomfort just before.
I noticed there’s one point where she goes all red as a forewarning, and then in the nightmare that follows her outfit changes to white.
Not just her outfit but her face, hair, everything became colourless, which was me trying to give that feeling that she’s not really there, she’s not with Gregory in that moment any more, she’s retreated, into herself (and too the toilet) to try and get ‘unstuck’.
Red becomes a cue for blood and loss of control - a bit like Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now perhaps?
Nicolas Roeg is one of my favourite directors.
What for you lies behind your choice of the two very different yet parallel visual and narrative approaches to this book, the very human, presumably hand-pencilled and hand-watercolour-painted (maybe with some photoshop to beef up lines?) for Nao’s life and thoughts, and the hard-edged, tight lines and slicker flat computer coloured fantasy of Pictor’s allegorical fairytale? What contrasts and feelings do you want to convey with these? I loved the way the two stories do converge on page 152, a lowpoint where Nao sees herself as a monster with a head like half-tree, half-human Pictor.
Well, on the most basic level, the Pictor story is supposed to be drawn by a different artist, also ‘hafu’, the half French, half Japanese (fictional) Gil Ichiyama, Mangaka & Anime director. Ichiyama was inspired by my two favourite artists, Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Hayao Miyazaki. The Gil Ichiyama character was me trying my best to combine them and emulate their work in some way. Also I wanted to do the majority of the book in that looser style because that’s what I’d gotten used to after 15 years of storyboarding. The last time I did comics professionally I never felt comfortable with my inking style, I felt I always sucked the life out of the original drawing with my inking. Now with the help of photoshop I have no need to ink anything any more and I feel all the better for that freedom. Hopefully it means my line retains some spontaneity and freshness.
I just read your blog entry on your meditation practice - very interesting. I wonder how you’ve found that helped you in creating The Nao of Brown? and how it also feeds into the story and characters? It certainly helps Nao come through everything - rather than drugs or medication?
I was interested in meditation for a long long time, always reading about it, but never getting round to actually doing it. I finally went to a Buddhist centre and took a course in it. My time there inspired large chunks of the story and a few of the characters. My actual practice varied throughout the process of doing the book and towards the last six months it dropped off completely, there was just no time. I’m only just getting back to once a day for 15 mins now.
Are comics too busy, too short-attention-span, to be meditative? or to be meditation tools? Perhaps you could meditate on the mental picture of a specific Moebius scene for example?
I might have to get back to you on that one. As an artist I definitely go back to certain artists and books and pore over pages and pages again and again, but I’m not sure that’s the average way a reader will read a comic. The ‘fact’ I’ve heard bandied around many a time is that your average reader will spend just one second looking at each panel. If I were to meditate on that for too long it could become quite depressing.
What lies behind the boom in urban vinyl or cool designer ‘toys’ (I recognised the Playlounge store in London)? Are they akin to Japanese yokai? Do you see their appeal are talismans, familiars, tulpas - or mere cool collectibles?
I think the best thing about them is that they’re different things to different people, but I like the idea that some can hold meaning instead of just being simply ‘one liners’. I love that you compare them to yokai, or tulpas. And the similarity between them and cheap, mass produced religious icons interests me too. I have a small Ganesh that sits next to an Amos toy on my shelf and they go great together.
Gregory’s drinking problem, and the later revelation of his repressed shame, deepen our empathy for him - but it also calls into question how this teacher took advantage of his pupil. Were you keen to show the vulnerability of young seekers of spiritual enlightenment and the reality that not every school or instructor is to be trusted?
Yes, for Nao the Buddhist centre remains a sanctuary, in her black & white way of thinking she sees anyone at that centre as ‘good’ or at least trying to be good and that’s very important to her. Even though meditation is a good thing for OCD sufferers to practice, going to the centre is in fact part of her OCD, she is seeking reassurance, it is one of her compulsions. I suppose I didn’t want to take that away from Nao but I did need to show that of course things are never quite that simple, so yes it made sense to have that as part of Gregory’s background… and any place where power play is involved, no matter on what scale, there is always an opportunity for abuses to take place.
Gregory’s cryptic last words to Nao after their argument are: ‘Ea se vidit’ - my rusty Latin helped here, something like ‘she saw herself’, right? What’s behind this please?
Well, I know what I think he means by it… but I’d kinda rather people interpret it for themselves, because there could be more than one interpretation. But your translation is indeed correct. I dunno, I could explain it, I’m tempted to, but I think maybe some things are better left for the reader to decide/participate in.
What brought you back to the ‘bosom of comics’ and what appeals to you - or maybe aggravates you too - about the medium compared to your experiences drawing and designing for film/TV and commercials?
I started out in storyboarding because I had ambitions to direct, which I did a tiny bit of. But like many things one strives for, once you realise them, they’re often not quite what you thought they’d be. I found a lot of frustration trying to get film/TV projects off the ground even when working on projects with the recognised commercial talent of Jamie Hewlett. If you want to make a comic you don’t need a big team of people and a bag load of cash, you just need an idea, pencil, paper and time. So that simplicity is what drew me back to the idea of comics and I started on Nao with no deal in place, it was just something I wanted to do in my spare time.
But the good thing about storyboarding, was that it was a proper boot-camp for drawing. I reckon I’ve drawn so much more than I would’ve done had I stuck with comics. And the real nice thing, the thing that freed me up the most, was that hardly anyone saw it, the director, the DP, some of the crew and then they’d be binned. I was just a cog in the bigger film making machine. So that removed any ego issues or worrying about ‘being any good’, I was just able to get on with drawing/storytelling and not worry about being judged. I think it was because of this lack of self consciousness that a ‘style’ evolved that I was kinda happy with for the first time ever. So I am very aware that coming back to comics, is a bit of a different ball game, especially having never written anything before… so I’m just gonna do my best to enjoy it, now it’s done.
What rituals did you find worked? And, dare I pry, could you make it work financially - ie having to say ‘No’ to distracting lucrative offers?
Working in film/TV and commercials, my work is rewarded monetarily in a way that comics sadly can’t seem to match. I did have to combine working on the book with doing storyboards… until the last four months when I worked solely on the book. Let’s just say I didn’t start this in order to get rich. But I would like to say that Self Made Hero have been a complete joy to work with. When I first signed up with them they weren’t quite the major independent force they’ve become over the last few years, so I feel I really lucked out. They’re small in number but make up for that with their passion. They’ve been supportive throughout and let me be involved in all aspects of the production, so the book, as an object, is very much how I wanted it to be.
When did you start and complete the book?
Well the idea came into being in 2008 but I signed up with SMH after doing the first eleven pages and a synopsis or two. I signed up around May 2010… And I finished it on May the seventh this year. But I had to storyboard in that time as well.
Did you work on it consecutively, page by page, or out of order? and did you write a full script before starting to draw it? What are the pros and cons of your method?
I wrote it first in the format of a film script, partly because that was more what I was used to - translating other people’s scripts into visuals, partly because I had the ‘Final Draft’ software from when I’d written a (still on the shelf) screenplay - but also because I wanted to get that first draft out as quickly as possible. I don’t see myself as a writer, so I wasn’t confident at all and that first draft was hard work, it felt so big and unwieldy at first…but it’s like everyone says, once you get that first draft done, it gets a lot easier. Once I’d signed the deal with SMH I think I had 3 months to give them a script. I did about 6 drafts in that time, the 7th being the final changes I made when lettering it after all the artwork was complete. Being able to change and move word balloons around to different panels is a freedom I’d not like to give up in a hurry.
I think on a long form thing like Nao, with a deadline, writing the script first was the best method, but on shorter form projects I think it makes more sense to try and write it more visually, using thumbnails and then working into it with dialogue etc. I did choose to draw it in order, I wanted to see myself how things might change over such a long period of time. So I drew it all in sequence, then when that was done I went back to the beginning and painted it all in order again. Then lastly, went back and did all the balloons and caption boxes, the lettering had been done at the layout stage but it did need editing and shifting here and there in that last pass. Drawing-wise I only went back and changed a few things, here and there, things, maybe about five panels I could no longer bear to look at. But on the whole it is done in the order you read it.
There’s the real major life challenge of making the focussed time to create a big solo graphic novel like this - and still being a partner, dad and human being - how did you make this work?
Well, for the last 5-6 months I was working seven days a week from 9am to 3am only stopping to eat and put the boys to bed. Before that it was six days a week but not every evening. So sacrifices were definitely made, my wife and family have been very very patient and supportive. But it’s been great to finally have weekends back with them again. Then about two weeks after finishing the book, I ended up in hospital for five days with spine disc and nerve damage and a numbness that everyone was a bit worried about, then quickly followed that up with a nasty abscess… so I think it’s safe to say I asked a lot my body towards the end, and then had to pay the consequences… I’ll be a bit more careful in the future.
The opening Article first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Art Review Magazine.