Kate Brown has had an eclectic career, working on projects as wildly various as children’s adventure stories, Marvel’s Young Avengers and even a comic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Brown has earned a reputation for colourful, imaginative artwork and writing which skirts the line between the fantastical and the disturbing. She was recently hired as a guest artist on the Kieron Gillen’s critically acclaimed series The Wicked+The Divine, and she was kind enough to meet with me to discuss the comics industry, collaborative storytelling and the power of fairy tales.
I kicked off the conversation by asking her about The Wicked+The Divine. Was there any pressure in working on a book that had been so acclaimed? “Definitely. It’s a bit of a hard gig, after Jamie [McKelvie] and Matt [Wilson], because they’re very highly regarded, for good reason, so it was a little bit scary, but at the same time, because I’d worked with them before, that eased up on the pressure a bit. So yeah, it was nerve-wracking, but it was definitely easier than last time.”
Obviously working on WicDiv isn’t exactly a run-of-the-mill job; did it bring any unique challenges? “I was kind of reading them [the issues] as they were getting released, so Kieron would send me the scripts, and I’d get a PDF as they were getting put out, and I had no idea what was going to happen. I just had to read it as it went, and the issue before mine, issue eleven, had quite an extreme amount of character death, including one of my favourite characters, and I was really upset about that. It was an emotional challenge, actually, having to deal with that. Because I was really into the storyline, and seeing that and having to be suddenly professional about it, that was a bit tough.”
Brown has also worked extensively for British comic The Phoenix, including the recently concluded strip Tamsin and the Deep. How does that format compare to the American industry? “I’m working as a partner on the Tamsin series with Neill Cameron, who’s doing the writing for that one, which takes the burden off. But obviously I have done series before with them where I’ve been handling everything. There is definitely a different approach. With The Phoenix, a lot of the people who were behind the project came from the book publishing industry. They were fantastic, not particularly prescriptive. We got a lot of guidance with writing for children, and learning how to make things appealing—I find I do struggle with that sometimes, with my writing. My personal stuff does tend to lean a bit adult, and sort of knocking it back to something which is a bit less grim I did find a bit hard. I would say the comics I have done this year in The Phoenix have been a little bit on the grim side, but I guess that’s just me, really! I’ve kind of accepted that.”
Brown’s solo creator-owned projects are also a key part of her career. Most recently she produced the spectacular poetic fairy tale The Unicorn and the Woodsman, and in 2011 she received great acclaim for her graphic novel Fish+Chocolate, which reinterpreted three folk tales for the modern day. What does Brown find so attractive about these old tales? “I’m fascinated with fairy tales, folklore tales, that kind of thing. I particularly like them because they’re so loose, you’re able to interpret them in so many different ways, and they’ve stayed with me as I’ve grown up. Reading Snow White when I was a child is very different to reading when I’m an adult. As I grow and experience different things, I’m able to read different things into it, even if it’s only a tiny, tiny 200 word story or something. I really enjoy working as a reader, to try and understand what it is that the creator’s putting across. I love things that require repeated readings, I get the most joy out of those and I love thinking about them. I wanted to try, as much as I could, to replicate that kind of thing within my own work. I realise that it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but my true love is these kind of interpretive aspects of literature.”
What’s it like to write something you’re also drawing? “I’ve really only worked with two writers, Kieron [Gillen] twice, and Neill [Cameron] one and a half times, and it is very different. When I’m creating the actual artwork, I’d say that it’s not really any easier. When I’m writing my own “scripts”, in inverted commas, I don’t really do that classic kind of ‘page one, panel one, this happens’. I write, like, paragraphs, and I’ll also write dialogue down. Sometimes I don’t even break it into pages. You don’t really get that kind of opportunity when you’re working with a script writer, you’ve got a final script and you need to adhere to that. That was a skill I did not have before I started working, first time I did it was for Young Avengers, and I didn’t have that skill to interpret a proper script. I was totally out of my depth, actually, it was a little bit stressful. I was panicking because I didn’t know if I was getting down what the writer was expecting to have on the page. It was just such a different process. I’m getting more used to it now, but I still have that worry that I’m disconnecting somehow. It’s a panic thing for me, I try my best. But maybe that just comes from my point of view. I think I probably just overthink things!”
As the interview drew to a close, I asked what Brown was working on next? “We’re finishing up on the Tamsin and the Deep book, that should be out next year, hopefully, as a paperback. After that’s done we’re starting work on Tamsin and the Dark, which I think may start being serialised later this year in The Phoenix. That’s mostly it, as well as my long book that I’m doing in the background.” Kate Brown is one of the most exciting and hard-working figures in comics today, and it’s good to find out that there’s more on the horizon. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she’ll do next. The impression I got from interviewing her was of someone who doesn’t quite realise how talented she really is, but her fans certainly do. The comics industry is extremely lucky to have her.
IMAGE/ Image Comics