Neill Cameron: Panels to Draw and Worlds to Build, Part 1

In this interview, I’m joined by the British comics creator Neill Cameron, whose books for young readers include Pirates of Pangea, Tamsin of the Deep, Mo-Bot High, How To Make Awesome Comics, and three volumes of the acclaimed Mega Robo Bros – as well as an ongoing daily webcomic for older readers, X365, which has been appearing throughout 2020.

We talked about creating convincing future and fantasy worlds, getting to know imagined places by drawing them, and the contrasts between the vision of 2020 we were promised as children – and the turbulent realities of the year as we’re experiencing it.

I started by asking Neill about the difference between creating Mo-Bot High, a kids’ comic framed as a Transformers-like franchise, with a gimmick and a world in which many adventures could take place, and the subsequent Mega Robo Bros, which presented a very different kind of school story, set in a future London not a mllion miles from our own. Both series appeared in the British children’s comic The Phoenix.

Mo-Bot High was quite a top-down experience; the high concept came first, and the idea that I wanted to do Mallory Towers, a school story, but with all this awesome science-fiction stuff. Once I had the world, I then needed characters to populate it. 

The good thing about Mega Robo Bros was that it was a character-first story: there are two brothers, who happen to be robots, and I have a clear sense of who they are. Figuring out the logistics of their world, though, took ages; what does it mean for the brothers to be robots? 

I knew I wanted them to be regular kids who went to school. I filled sketchbooks with different sketches of what they might look like, from chunky little Transformer dudes in school backpacks to one version, which I actually got as far as writing, in which they looked like human kids and didn’t know they were robots until something happened in the first episode which revealed their robotiness! That would’ve been quite a different story, but I found it too logistically complicated to get through in the three-page episodes we were doing for The Phoenix.

I found my way to a vision where they were robots in school uniform and the picture tells you the whole concept, with no explanation required. That’s then the starting point for the whole world: they’re wearing school uniform, so there are schools, and so on.

I wanted it to be very recognisably our world, but just with things like flying buses because that’s cool!

We’ve always been careful to never even remotely come near saying what year this is happening in. In most respects, it’s just today – to the extent that some early reviews hadn’t noticed the comic was set in the future. Bizarre, because I would have thought flying buses were a pretty clear iconography for “We are in the future.” But I made everything else feel so today, because we’re not really aiming to explore some changed future society, we’re using the Bros’ journey to look at society as it is now.

Strategists doing foresight work are in a similar position; you only imagine the plausible future to examine your choices in the present. Scenarios are not really “the future”, they’re fictions which give you a new perspective on the world we inhabit today.

Once you’ve got the brothers, and the school, how do you build out the wider world they inhabit?

I wanted them to be in a regular family, but also to be the only ones like them in this world; they are the point of uniqueness in the world of the story. That implies that their parents are just human people; again, very quickly their characters arrived in my head very clearly. This was to the extent that I was going to give them two mums, seeing an opportunity for positive representation, but the dad was already so clear in my head as to who he was, that I just couldn’t. I had to make them a fairly standard hetero family because I had such a clear idea of who these people were.

So you decide the mum is going to be the scientist, and the link to the sci-fi elements, and their backstory, and the exposition; I wanted the dad just to be the complete opposite – a bit of a stay-at-home dad, the primary carer, the butt of all the jokes and a figure of general ridicule –

The role of the good dad, I think.

Yeah! Just a good dad. And then you work out from that; the school is pretty standard, I’ve worked in so many schools over the last few years that it comes pretty naturally. The assumption is that they’ll pretty be much like today.

You keep building on and out from there – the one way in which their future differs from our society is in the response to the robots. There’s a global, possibly UN affiliated agency called RAID which is responsible for all matters robotic and robot-security-related, so I guess it hints at the idea that government works slightly differently in this world. 

Insofar as I think about world-building and what kind of future we want to be showing, obviously it’s a story for kids, including quite young kids; the Phoenix readership does go quite young, so while we do get into some deeper themes and areas, I always aim for a bright, friendly, optimistic tone. The future is a good place to be, somewhere you want to live in, even if there’s action and drama. Paranoid dystopias for six year olds isn’t a direction I’d aim to go in…though who knows, maybe that’s where I should go!

I’m reminded of Russell T. Davies’ comment in The Writer’s Tale, that people think the farting Slitheen in Doctor Who are for kids, and the more serious stories are for adults – but in fact, adults can enjoy flatulent green monsters and enjoy the escapism from their responsibilities, whie kids do appreciate the heavy stuff – they feel things so vividly that the death of a goldfish can be like the end of a world for them.

My very first day in an infant school, when they were just seeing if I could cope with it, I remember looking at some kids’ colouring work, and this five year old girl was drawing a bare-breasted mermaid stabbing a sailor! I’ve never forgotten it.

That’s full on! I’ve done a lot of work with kids and I’m familiar with the things kids draw when left to their own devices. 

Yeah, when I was working with foster and asylum-seeking kids I remember this one orphaned boy drawing a comic of himself and his grandad going into the haunted woods with shotguns to kill vampires that had abducted his parents. This stuff can be the vehicle for such deep, intense emotions.

That poor boy! It’s amazing, and dark, and sad, and awesome. I got kids to draw horror comics for the Kids Comics Club last year, and the things they produced were so much darker and more horrifying than anything you would have believed. One about the ghost of a girl who hanged herself in an orphanage, haunting a mental asylum – and the author was nine! I was like, “Where is this coming from?” Kids will draw comics for themselves that I, as an adult, would never be allowed to draw for their age range.

It’s the job of a kids’ comic like The Phoenix, I guess, to offer a world you would like to live in, rather than one that haunts you. It’s a friendly world.

If you’re writing prose, I guess there has to be a bit more description of how the future technology works, a bit more “Charge up the flux capacitors” or “the antigrav car descended from the skies”, but with comics you can kind of draw a thing and it speaks for itself. It doesn’t matter how the buses fly, you can see that they do.

How much can you evoke the future through look alone?

Comics are completely a visual medium, and how you draw these things affect the feel of the world that you’re building. I’ve never sat down and written a “series bible” for Mega Robo Bros to describe the tone of it, because you can see it there on the page.

As I’ve got to know their world better, I’ve developed a better sense of what this world looks like. It’s a sunnier version of the usual London we get to visit in our world.

The style owes a bit to ligne claire, but also to the depth of detail you get from manga, where you can express the complexity and richness of a world with all this stuff which isn’t plot-relevant or even a background joke, but just fleshes everything out, so you can fully imagine walking down a street in the Bros’ world – or wonder about what lies around that next corner.

A huge part of making children’s comics is not just what you’re giving them, but the opportunities you create for them to imagine their own stories. That’s why the weekly cliffhanger is perhaps the most important part of Mega Robo Bros: it’s the opportunity for you to imagine what happens next for a full week before you arrive at the artist’s own crummy version.

The visual equivalent of that is making the world as real as possible, so you can imagine your own adventures there too.

Well, we both come from growing up with old-school Doctor Who with its 25-minute instalments which were fully premised on this idea of imagining what would happen between now and the episode resolving the cliffhanger next week. And things like Star Wars, too; having the action figures for me, as a kid, was an opportunity to make up your own stories which differed wildly from what the adults were showing you on the page or screen.

There’s also a kinship again to scenario planning, too; you imagine the future collectively in order that you, and others, can then look at these scenarios and say, “What would it be like to live in this world? Can I step into the shoes of different actors in this world and see what it would feel like for them, and what they’d choose to do? What would it be like for me to imagine myself in this future we’ve created?”

How does an artist get to know the imagined place that they’re drawing, as they draw it?

Some of it is very straightforward; some of the locales in the strip are based on familiar settings and real places, into which I’ve added the robots and future tech. And because there are recurring locations, you get to know them ever better as you draw them from different angles.

The future is not created from whole cloth; it will look largely like today, barring huge scale destruction. There’ll be new buildings which aren’t there yet, but not everything changes all at once.

There are bits of London, where the comic is set, which currently look much as they did 100 years ago; other parts look a bit like they did 100 years ago; and in other parts there are huge, horrible glass and steel monstrosities plastered on top. Whatever the future looks like, it’ll be quite mish-mashy. 

I add the layer of future mish-mashiness to the real-world locations which inspire the comic; Central London has evolved the most, as the more I drew it, the more I reflected on London’s distinctive and aggressively odd look combining historic skylines and weird-shaped skyscrapers with a comedy name. What does that look like taken ten degrees further?

It reminds me of Stephen Briggs’ map of Terry Pratchett’s fictional city Ankh-Morpork. In trying to draw a coherent map, he found that even though Pratchett hadn’t had such a diagram, he did have a consistent vision of the city which he was kind of reading off the inside of his eyelids as he wrote.

I wonder what that did to Terry Pratchett’s ability to imagine the city as a setting – was it a limiting factor, or an aid to remembering how the streets connected? It must be weird when other people catalogue your own imagination to that obsessive level of detail.

How would you feel if someone wrote a guidebook to the Mega Robo Bros’ London?

Like never being specific about what year the comic takes place in, I don’t worry too much about those details. The story’s 100% rooted in those boys’ perspective on the world. Freddy the younger brother knows his way to school, his own house, his mate’s house and the corner shop, but beyond that, it’s all kind of background blur. So if he’s not worried about where this skyscraper sits in relationship to that one, why should I be? If you told him all that detail, he’d only forget it anyway.

And I guess, as a kid, you know your own neighbourhood to some extent but then, like when we were kids, if you took a day trip to London, at some point it just became some streets passing the car window, and then you were deposited in a new location – you didn’t necessarily have a sense of how all the bits of London you visited joined up.

And again, futures work is really rooted in the now – just as your story is rooted in the London of here and now, with a few twists. Scenarios are perhaps more like this than the elaborately constructed worlds of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or Richard Adams’ animal stories.

You were saying at the start about Mega Robo Bros that it’s basically “now, except with flying buses”, and maybe that leads us on nicely to X365, your daily comic which is running through 2020. Its opening panels basically show us the version of 2020 where we did get flying cars and buses.

I’ve got a bit of a thing for lines of flying traffic, what can I tell you!

Let’s bear that in mind for next time we speak!

You can find part 2 of my conversation with Neill Cameron here. All illustrations in this post are by Neill.

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