The Silver Darlings
It’s 1967 and the Scottish herring catch is rapidly declining. Changing tides bring changing times. The opening image of The Silver Darlings, Will Morris’s surprisingly confident graphic novel debut from Blank Slate Books, set in a beautiful fishing village in the West of Scotland, shows a beach strewn with washed-up rubbish, tyres, wood and wreckage. It is an early omen of choppy waters ahead. The springboard for Morris’s project was a visit to Dunure in Ayrshire, when he became fascinated by an information board detailing the local sailors’ lore. Fishermen believed that they must never use Vesta-brand matches, never call a salmon a salmon but use ‘winnish’ or ‘queer fellow’, and blame bad hauls on witches squatting the hold, who would have to be flushed out with flaming torches. Morris found that, “Some of the superstitions I looked into were extraordinary, but I can well believe how readily they’d develop if your lifestyle was as fraught with danger as that of a fisherman.”
Morris’s idea developed into the coming-of-age story of scrawny, gangly teenage landlubber Danny, trying to look grown-up with his ginger peach-fuzz moustache. He’s been roped in to help out on his Dad’s fishing boat for his last week’s holiday before leaving for college in Glasgow. Danny has no time for this superstitious nonsense and decides to test the fates by secreting on board with him an unlucky white-handled knife. But this jinxed object plants a subtle fear, in Danny and the reader, that something will go horribly wrong. It’s not a good sign that Danny trips and bumps his head on his first morning and with no sea legs, later loses his lunch overboard. One fisherman’s knees have forecast bad weather and as the sea begins to swell, Danny can’t help wondering, “With fishing as it was, all the expertise in the world was for nothing without a little luck.”
Morris is more used to dry land himself. “The closest I’ve ever got is on day-boats line-fishing for mackerel. I relied largely upon books like Angus Martin’s The Herring Fishermen of Kintyre and Ayrshire and Redmond O’Hanlon’s Trawler, oral testimony from the great folk at Ayrshire Archives and a few wise words gleaned from online fishing forums.” Cheltenham-born Morris has moved to Edinburgh but he’s still a Sassanach, so he decided to pluck out only those vernacular words that are distinctly ‘Scots’ rather than trying to reproduce the language intact. Graphically, he has always been interested in the density and atmosphere you can create in black and white, and here he captures the rough waves, changing skies and vulnerable figures almost entirely in surging washes of grey on paper over his taut ink lines. The result is an understated, social-realist evocation of a once bustling industry, now all but vanished. “When you see photographs of those thriving fishing villages full of people and stories, compared to how they look now - very beautiful but very quiet - there is a sadness. You realise how much has gone.”
For ‘Blue Seas’, his new Strip for ArtReview Magazine (at the foot of this article), Morris offers an unseen incident from The Silver Darlings between Danny and his older, more worldly cousin James, set to take over the family business from Danny’s father, for better or worse. Morris wanted to craft “...a scene that captures one of the book’s main themes: reflecting that awkward teenage state of growing up and how lessons are often learned through occasionally painful and frequently mortifying experience.” Danny is in a hurry to grow up but his luck is no better below deck.
Gosh! Comics in London’s Soho are holding a launch party, signing and exhibition of original artwork for The Silver Darlings, starting on February 15th, 2013 and are offering this lovely signed bookplate, limited to an edition of 200.
Web Exclusive Extra:
Here are a few more questions and answers with Will Morris which he kindly submitted for this ArtReview profile:
You open with a title image of lots of rubbish, tyres, wreckage, washed up on the shore - a decidedly unromantic image of the fishing village - is this an ecological comment, a critique of modernity, a hint of disaster ahead?
I drew that opening image after finishing the book and felt it worked as an omen for the story’s conclusion. Around that time I’d also taken a walk along a Cumbrian beach strewn with debris, it’s hard not to dwell on where it all came from.
Why the herring industry?
The idea was inspired by an information board on display in the Ayrshire fishing village of Dunure, which described local traditions and superstitions. The story grew around that idea and the setting was firmly established before I knew it.
Why a young man’s coming of age?
Herein lies one of the great things about producing a graphic novel. It’s an achingly long process from initial script to thumbnails and final artwork, which allows plenty of time for themes to ferment. Initially I was most interested in using the main character to explore the superstitions of the community, but soon enough the young man and his fumbling experiences took on equal importance.
I like the way you show Danny as scrawny, gangly, with a wispy moustache, trying to be a man, uncomfortable with his Dad’s affections.
I wanted to try to capture that particularly awkward time when a young adult attempts to cut a swathe in the world. At that age my ideas were well ahead of my experience. I’m sure I’ll say the same of my current self in another 15 years time.
What do you make of the way that such superstitions lived on even while modern technology like the echo sounder was used? The superstitions like the weather-forecasting knees also reminded me Ken Reid’s Jonah in The Beano, the jinx who sinks every ship!
I couldn’t claim to be any expert on the subject, but I know for certain that I have any number of private rituals to get through the day…and my days are fairly tame. Some of the superstitions I looked into were extraordinary, but I can well believe how readily they’d develop if your lifestyle was as fraught with danger as that of a fisherman. Whilst writing The Silver Darlings I read a fantastic book by Redmond O’Hanlon documenting two weeks spent aboard a trawler. He approached the experience with a firmly rational mind, which makes it all the more enjoyable to witness personal superstitions developing in his sleep-starved state.
In the end is Danny as superstitious as his father or his cousin? Do we all need to believe in a little luck?
I’d say he’s just a little less black and white in his viewpoint.
In researching The Silver Darlings, did you get any first-hand experience on being on board a fishing boat?
Nothing of the type in the book sadly, the closest I’ve ever gotten is on day boats line-fishing for mackerel. I relied largely upon books on the subject, oral testimony from the great folk at Ayrshire Archives and a few wise words gleaned from online fishing forums.
How about researching 1967, the period, clothes, lingo, Danny’s Polaroid camera?
I have to direct you to the advert for the Polaroid Swinger on Youtube. Never before has a camera inspired such spontaneous jiving.
How did you resolve the use of Scottish accents and vernacular in the book? i had to google ‘slevers’!
Not without some agonising over the best approach. I’ve recently been re-reading Tintin’s adventure The Black Island, which features a number of colourful Scots. It reads well (to my English ear), but I find myself spending as much time decoding and enjoying the dense language as absorbing what’s actually being said. This approach could have been fairly turgid over the course of a book and so I opted for a lighter touch. I cut this back even further after reading Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, in which he plucks out only the words that are distinctly ‘Scots’ rather than attempt to describe the accent. I was also fortunate to have a native on hand at all times to steer me right.
Technical stuff - it looks you did all this on paper and in ink and watercolour? I detect there’s a bit of photoshop involved too?
Nothing escapes your keen eye. It’s almost entirely produced in ink washes on paper, however the speech bubbles were laid on with Photoshop and some fresh panels were slipped in at the end of the process, to mask a few early horrors.
I would have loved to see this book in colour - judging from the cover it would’ve looked great. Why did you decide to stick to B&W? Closer to the greys of the sea and skies? To avoid making it too picturesqe?
I could come up with any number of reasons, but simply enough I just felt most comfortable at the time working in grey tones. I’ve always been interested in the density and atmosphere you can create in black and white and as such was much better practised in this way.
And what more did you want your new ArtReview strip to reveal about Danny?
I wanted to create a scene that captures one of the book’s main themes: reflecting that awkward teenage state of growing up and how lessons are often learned through occasionally painful and frequently mortifying experience.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of ArtReview Magazine.