David Baillie and Meghan Hetrick Walk Us Through A Magical Glasgow for ‘Red Thorn’ [Interview]
Modern day miracles meet the dark legends of Scottish mythology in Red Thorn, the recently launched series from writer David Baillie and artist Meghan Hetrick that's part of Vertigo's 2015 renaissance. The series is set on the streets of Glasgow, where an American girl called Isla brings her drawings to life while occult magics from centuries ago start boiling back up to the surface.
Scotland's rich history --- both real and mythical --- swirls through the series like a thick mist, offering a look at the harder, grittier types of legend that seem so quintessentially Scottish. The series marks the culmination of a years of planning from Baillie and Hetrick, who spoke to ComicsAlliance about their work together, what readers can expect from the series, and just what the heck a "semmit" is.
CA: When did you first start working on Red Thorn? What made this a project you really wanted to get off the ground?
David Baillie: I pitched Vertigo a proto-version of Red Thorn nearly two years ago. The setting was there, some of the mythos and the three main characters, Thorn, Isla and Tarek, were in place, but they played very different roles.
Over the space of a few drafts it became clear that this was a story I could use to explore everything from organized religion and the b------s we let govern us, to love, loss, death and grunge music. It also allowed me to write in my native tongue and showcase Glasgow. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect fit with my current obsessions.
Meghan Hetrick: I came on through another project that we were working on together. We basically just transferred the entire creative team over!
CA: Why did you decide to bring the series to Vertigo?
MH: Reading Vertigo as a kid was what made me realize that comics weren't just spandex-clad superheroes punching each other (or brooding... I came to comics in the 90s after all). Because of that, I still have fan girl moments where I can't quite believe that this is where I'm working. It gets tempered quite a bit by the fact that 'working in comics' is still 'working', but it's still quite a bit of fun.
DB: I've been a Vertigo nerd since my late teens, when I contracted a nasty bout of chicken pox and my only solace was a box of Shade the Changing Man back issues. Over the years I've read pretty much everything they've ever published, and for me there was nowhere else I could take Red Thorn --- it has Vertigo encoded into its DNA.
My favorite writers and artists have all worked at Vertigo, and to walk in their footsteps and add to the history of my favourite imprint is honestly exhilarating.
CA: What's your artistic process going to be like for the series, Meghan? You can switch style and tools so quickly --- what can we expect from your work on Red Thorn?
MH: A bit darker, I'd say. Much heavier lines and shadows, a lot more ink rendering. It's taken me a few issues to kind of settle in with the characters, and I have a feeling it'll take me a few more before everything actually "clicks." Because of that, it's still an evolving look.
CA: When you previously spoke to Janelle Asselin for 'Hire This Woman', it seemed like you had quite the interest in magical characters --- mentioning Witchblade among many others. Do you think of this series as your chance to create a new set of characters to stand alongside the ones you love?
MH: I'd say so, yes. It might take people a little bit to really latch on to who these characters are (hopefully not too long though!), but I think by issue four there'll start being some fanart floating around --- which will blow my mind, by the way.
CA: The series is set in Glasgow, where you live, David --- and one of the most disparate, proud, loud parts of the world in general. What made you choose to set the story there?
DB: I'm actually in London at the moment, albeit temporarily --- but I do hail from Glasgow. And I love your description of my city, that's absolutely spot on. Those characteristics are all part of the reason I had to set Red Thorn there.
The people of Glasgow are like no one else on Earth --- they're an almost impossible blend of tough, hilarious, generous and canny. They have a sense of humour that you don't find anywhere else on Earth and a guttural irreverence that I really wanted to commit to paper.
I learned so much as a teenager working in the Barrowlands market in the east end of Glasgow, including how to treat people with respect and how to avoid being taken for a mug. It's where I bought all my back issues --- hundreds of old 2000 ADs and Vertigo series --- and it's where I saw the most blistering gigs of my life.
Isla and Alec actually walk past the front of the Barras in the first issue. DC legal were worried about featuring the signage so prominently and wanted it obscured by word balloons. I phoned up the owner, and before I'd even started explaining my history with the place he'd told me to stop being silly --- of course he'd give us permission.
CA: The first arc brings an American girl, Isla, to the city --- was the idea for her to be a viewpoint character, so we get to see Glasgow through the perspective of an outsider?
DB: Isla may be American, but her family tree is pure Glasgow from her parents all the way back to the Picts. I've written her as if the Glasgwegian traits we talked about earlier were genetic --- which is a theory I'd be willing to debate.
When we first meet her she has more than found her feet, so it's not really an outsider's view of the city that we get --- but I do think it might help a largely American audience that we have a character who occasionally needs a word or two explained. You know, like: trainers, pavement, tap, or semmit.
CA: What do you think motivates, and drives Isla as a character? What interests you most about her?
DB: When we first meet Isla she's trying to discover what happened to her sister, Lauren, who mysteriously disappeared in Scotland some twenty five years ago. Before Isla was born. As a teenager Isla started to develop hugely powerful magical powers, and she thinks these two things are probably related. And she'd be right.
MH: Isla is very single-minded in her pursuit of uncovering the mystery surrounding her sister. She's also incredibly stubborn and hot-headed, which I think she channels in a reasonably healthy manner, considering the circumstances.
DB: A yearning to figure out these mysteries and what they mean for Isla and her family is what drives her throughout the first story arc. She's bold and doesn't let anything stand in her way when she has set her mind to something. It's been fun writing her, and seeing just how far I can push her.
I have to be honest and admit that I also love her hair. Meghan draws the best hair in comics, and Steve [Oliff] is coloring it like no one else in the business. Honestly. Wait 'til you see her hair.
CA: How important is the idea of the clash between the mythos of classical Scotland and the modern-day face of Glasgow?
DB: Initially it's just Thorn, who has emerged from his 1600-year imprisonment to find a world that he despises, but later in our story, without spoiling anything, there will be far more of a clash between the two ideologies.
At the outset of our story it's the absence of his Scottish pagan pantheon that is a huge source of pain for Thorn. And we'll explore how that happened, and what effect it had on the world as Red Thorn progresses.
CA: Did you have an interest in Scottish mythology before you started on the series? What do you think it is about Scottish myth in particular that resonates so strongly even now?
DB: Growing up I was always fascinated by mythology --- be it Scottish, Roman, Greek, DC or Marvel. The archetypes are enormously powerful and have survived for so long because they're such great vehicles for ideas. I took great delight in plunging myself into a pile of dusty and forgotten books to find stories and legends that we hadn't seen in comics before, so that I could rub them up against some that we probably have.
I think Scottish mythology might be particularly popular because of the fabulous imagery. Any story can be an epic when you have scenery like ours. Throw in a huge sea monster, some wood spirits and a tartan clad hero and you're done.
CA: How have you found working together on the series? What's the collaborative process been like for you?
MH: I adore Dave. He is an incredibly talented writer, who allows me quite a bit of freedom when working, which is a fantastic thing for an artist like me. He also knows when to bring just a touch of humor to some extremely dark subjects, which I'm realizing more and more is a very Scottish trait.
The process has been a bit different than on other books. Since I've been doing pencils and inks, Peter Gross has been helping me out with page breaks, which has been an immense boon. Because of that, I'm more involved with the little details of the characters and settings, rather than the page flow itself. That setup seems to be switching soon, so we'll see how drastic of a shift there is in storytelling. (He's a master, I'm merely an apprentice at this point.)
DB: Meghan is going to be a huge star --- I honestly think she might be the best new comic artist in the western world. She's brought a huge amount to the characters that I couldn't have predicted, and that in turn has fed into the story as I'm writing it. As this is my first long-form collaboration I couldn't be happier with how it's turned out.
It's also been incredible to see Steve Oliff's colors come in week after week --- I'm a huge Akira fan, and as you probably know, Steve pretty much invented computer coloring for comics. On top of that, the thrill of seeing my name on the same page as Todd Klein's will never get old. And our editor Rowena Yow is a stone-cold genius for keeping us all on the right road and in one piece throughout the Red Thorn rollercoaster ride.
CA: Have you been to Glasgow, yourself, Meghan? How did you get into the atmosphere of what it's like over in Scotland?
MH: Not yet! I'm planning on a UK tour with Dave for the book launch though, and will be doing signings in Scotland (and London too --- for a little shameless plugging). So far, I've had to rely upon Dave's extremely good descriptions of the city and countryside, as well as an abuse of Google.
CA: What do you make of Meghan's take on Glasgow? What do you think her art brings to the series?
DB: I said it somewhere else, but I think it bears repeating --- Meghan's version of Glasgow is simply fabulous. She's taken the essence of the city I grew up in and added her own design sensibilities to the architecture, style and people of the city in the same way that a new artist might do when they first approach Gotham or Judge Dredd's Mega City One. And it turns out that writing for Meghan's slightly magical interpretation of the real-world Glasgow is perfect for this story.
Issue #1 of Red Thorn is on sale now. Issue #2 is on sale December 16.