As a professor and author, Mary Talbot has covered language, gender, and power, examining how these overlap and influence each other. These themes all come into play in her debut graphic novel, Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (978-1-59582-850-7, $14.99) - released earlier this year from Dark Horse Comics – in a very personal way. Dotter acts as a dual narrative, intertwining the life of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia with her own youth as the daughter of eminant Joycean scholar James S. Atherton. Social expectations and gender politics, thwarted ambitions and personal tragedy are played out against two contrasting historical backgrounds, all narrated by Mary in the present.
Illustrating the book is Mary's husband Bryan Talbot, whose career has spanned four decades and has included collaborations with Neil Gaiman (various issues of The Sandman) as well as his critically acclaimed The Tale of One Bad Rat and Grandville graphic novels.
BookShelf spoke with Mary and Bryan Talbot about collaborating on the graphic novel, the research that went into it, and the larger issues the story addresses.
What was the inspiration for the book?
Mary: I've had academic work in print years, writing closely linked to what I used to teach (mostly issues around gender and language, media and power). When I took early retirement in 2009, it opened up my horizons to other kinds of writing and I was keen to explore my interests in new ways. Bryan suggested I try my hand at autobiography, the idea being that I would produce a graphic novel script that he would illustrate. What he had in mind was my relationship with my father, which was what is called 'difficult'. I was a bit bemused by this suggestion initially, thinking that it sounded self-indulgent and no one could possibly be interested. But I gave some thought to his suggestion anyway.
For Mary: how did you discover the parallels between your life and Lucia's? How did you feel as you were finding this out?
Mary: My father was an eminent Joycean scholar and there was a spectral presence of James Joyce, so to speak, in the household as I grew up. I was vaguely aware that Joyce himself had a daughter, so I looked into that as a possible angle. Well, her parents were James and Nora; my parents were James and Nora! It was obvious! Other than that, I was exploring contrasts between Lucia's life and mine, really, rather than parallels. Gender politics is a key concern of the book. In the two storylines – Lucia's and my own – I show how gender expectations constrain girls and women, but also how things have changed.
For Mary: what made you decide you wanted to make this into a graphic novel?
Mary: It was Bryan's initial suggestion. I was looking for a new project and producing a graphic novel script sounded like an interesting new direction. It's such a rich medium to work in. Writing with the additional visual dimension is delightful.
For Mary: Your academic work has focused on gender issues in society, and in Lucia's case at least, it seemed that her struggles were very much tied into her gender. Was this Was this something that came across as you learned her story, and was it something you wanted to convey in the book?
Mary: Yes, absolutely. What I found out about Lucia astonished me. Such a tragic waste. I was particularly struck by the grim irony of her situation. Her father was James Joyce, the ground-breaking, iconic modernist; but his bourgeois expectations for his daughter crushed the life out of her.
For Bryan: what was it like working with Mary on this book? Was it challenging, given the personal nature of the story?
Bryan: It was a pleasure to work on, and I didn't find it particularly challenging. After the initial research (much of which Mary did) and preparation, I found it enjoyable to work in the style I developed for the book. It's a lot less intricate and time-consuming than my "Grandville" style and has a certain lightness of touch.
Each arc/time period (Lucia's youth, Mary's youth, present day) has an individual style. How did you decide which style to use for each story?
Bryan: Actually, they are all drawn in the same basic style. The difference was the way I rendered and presented them. I went with my intuition with the presentation and designed them to be distinctly recognizable, so that the reader would have no problem visually distinguishing the separate threads of the story. The present day sequences were drawn in a clear ink line technique with technical pens and in full colour. The flat colours were applied on computer. These are the only pages to have panel borders, a hard edge, if you will. The autobiography and biographical sections, both set in the past, have panels that fade on to the page at the edges, suggesting fluidity. Mary’s sequences were drawn with a soft B pencil with a sepia watercolour wash on textured watercolour paper with touches of spot colour to suggest the way that memory works, the way some things are remembered more vividly than others. You’ll notice that more colour appears gradually as events become more recent. The sepia wash gives an impression of times past. The Joycean sequences were inked with a dip pen, the variation of the thickness of the line giving it an old illustration feel, on smooth Bristol board so that the blue wash would have a different, less smooth, texture than the sepia wash. I thought the dip pen and blue somehow suited the Art Deco style of the 20s and 30s I was portraying. Using no other colours, the blue shades also give a suitable melancholic feel to those pages.
What was the collaboration process like on this book? For Bryan, how was it different from other writers you've worked with?
The collaboration was extremely close, sometimes on an hourly basis, as you can imagine, with co-creators working in the same house. Mary often kept an eye on the pages as they were being produced, giving me on-going feedback, so having definite input into the artwork, and I regularly suggested changes in the text as I illustrated it, if I thought that it could be improved or made clearer. Frequently, collaboration with a writer, especially if the comic is being produced for a big publisher, simply involves being sent a script, which I then illustrate. I've collaborated reasonably closely with a few writers in the past who were keen to be involved in the entire process, notably Neil Gaiman and Pat Mills, faxing them pages as they were completed and discussing the work most days on the telephone. Even so, these collaborations came nowhere near as close as this one.
Do you have any future collaborations planned?
Bryan: Mary's written a new graphic novel, Sally Heathcote, currently being drawn by the excellent Kate Charlesworth, to be published by Jonathan Cape in the UK. I'm providing the lettering and doing the visual storytelling, that is, doing the page breakdowns and the panel compositions in rough sketches.