Neill Cameron: Panels to Draw and Worlds to Build, Part 2

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

In the first instalment, we talked about Neill’s acclaimed Mega Robo Bros, and how he went about building their future London. Now we turn our attention to his panel-a-day comic for 2020, X365.

This comic features “A cyborg detective in a dark futuristic city. A stressed-out freelancer coping with COVID-19, deadlines and a new baby. A lone swordswoman in a ruined, monster-filled world”, each living parallel lives, yet mysteriously connected. But the pandemic pulled the comic off course from Neill’s original intent.

Insofar as I had an idea for X365 before starting it, it came from the idea that 2020 had been a fictional year that loomed large in my childhood imaginary universe. I thought it would be fun to honour that, or mark the occasion, by making a story built on the contrasts between the 2020 we were not promised, but strongly led to believe would arrive in our childhood reading — and the one that arrived.

I was a 2000AD kid and also a fan of other things like Marvel UK’s output, Sleeze Brothers, and Death’s Head, and at least some of these comics were set in the year 2020. There was a general late-80s, early-90s cyberpunky future which permeated our consciousness through anime and comics, and yet 2020 didn’t seem that far away. You were thinking, are we really all going to have cyborg eyes by this point?

Given where we are, it felt like an opportunity to reflect on the future we’d been shown, and where we’ve ended up.

Of course, Marvel had Iron Man 2020 and the like. As kids, 2020 was the year that people came back from and it would be their evil nephew, or their successor, or some other iteration of themselves.   

Right! Iron Man 2020 was the backup strip in Transformers when I was growing up, and then I think Death’s Head was based in the same 2020 for a while. That’s probably where all this began for me.

An arbitrary year that serves as a dark mirror – except now we’re living it.

I didn’t realise that 2020 would end up having such a specific meaning and flavour, I admit! I thought the comic would contrast a portentous sci-fi dystopia and the hilariously mundane reality of our 2020. Instead, it turned out we were inhabiting another dystopia, with fewer cyborgs and flying buses, but more terror.

Hannah, the mum from our world, is almost the most dangerous character among all these gun-toting, sword-wielding figures. There’s a moment where she’s social distancing from a cyborg detective and it makes you realise, they don’t have COVID in the “comic-book 2020” timeline.

The things I knew going in were that I wanted a cool cyborg PI in the 2000AD version of 2020, and I wanted him to have a neighbour from our world, and their paths would cross, and then – who knows? I guess she might have had more adventures in his world, but she couldn’t – because she wasn’t allowed to leave her flat, let alone enter another reality and risk spreading a highly dangerous pathogen into another dimension! I did not see that coming.

The story just stops at one point, with her stuck in the flat and texting the cyborg PI across the dimensions. Nobody would have planned a story with that structure…

That moment, where she’s self-isolating, is a lull – but it’s a narratively meaningful one, that speaks so clearly to how we’ve been all feeling through this pandemic.

Having established at the outset that one of these parallel worlds is our world, you can’t then not address it when a global crisis like COVID emerges. It couldn’t be set in a “generic recent-years time”, it was happening now, you had to deal with that stuff.

I got sick, and had the COVID, and it was horrible; it was on my mind, and that’s what’s been coming out of this stream-of-consciousness live project. It’s ended up being a much weirder comic than I believed I was capable of. How could it not be?

I was talking with Peter Scoblic, a foresight practitioner and foreign policy professional, who’s interested in the links between art and pop culture and what is going on in the world of geopolitics; noting that pop songs about Armageddon were front and centre in the popular consciousness right when we really were on the brink of Armageddon in the 80s, for example.

It makes you wonder what artists are picking up on in the atmosphere, what you sniff on the wind. There’s a degree of responsiveness…Why did you choose to do a daily comic in this of all years?

Last year – it seems ridiculous to say this – seemed like a bit of a difficult year. As we drove back from visiting my wife’s family in Cornwall at New Year’s, sitting in the car on an endless and tediously familiar drive home, staring at this road you know every inch of, I was thinking about the year ahead. I’d always had the notion of drawing something a tiny bit at a time; I’d had these two metre square canvases which I’d considered dividing up into 365 panels and making a comic on them, one panel a day. I threw those canvases out ages ago, so I decided I could use my iPad and ProCreate and do a digital version. 

“I can just knock out one panel a day, it wouldn’t be overwhelming,” I thought. Last year had seemed difficult; I’d written a note in a diary telling myself that this year would be easier, with cool creative projects, fun adventures, and “nothing too terrible happening.”

That’s an accursed diary, that’s the Necronomicon!

No-one has ever tempted fate so spectacularly, and paid for it so thoroughly.

Neil’s son speaks up from the next room: It’s all your fault!

This year, I was expecting to have my first prose book out, and we were going to Japan, and this was going to be my cool little side project. I hadn’t thought, “I will map the strange contours this year takes!”

In fact, I was anticipating the usual rhythm of the year. Years have a rhythm, a natural story, as the seasons go by, and we know these rhythms intrinsically. 

We’d done a comic for The Phoenix that was built around this rhythm and the Celtic festivals that mark the solstices: Samhain, Beltane, and so on. I loved that story, and trying to make something to fit that rhythm: the cold, the spring, the summer, the bleak darkness of the winter with a celebration of light and hope at the heart of it.

It’s like writing a school story; everyone knows the rhythm of the school year, depending on their hemisphere, and it’s incredibly familiar.

One of the reasons I left schoolteaching was realising that I’d spent more than two decades, as a kid and a teen and a university student and a staff member, feeling that “Oh-god-not-September-again” feeling at the end of every August…

The familiar rhythm of those things was almost entirely missing from the comic that actually emerged, mostly because I haven’t left the freaking house!

The scenario editor Betty Sue Flowers also speaks in this way, noting that years, days, stories, poems, lives, all have their rhythms. Yet there’s almost no sense of seasons in the X365 comic at all.

When it was lovely springtime, I was bedridden for two weeks trying not to infect my family. There weren’t many ruminations on blossoms and new life occurring as there were delirious fever dreams about swordfights with fish men!

This is the year that doesn’t have rhythm, that doesn’t have the usual story. Maybe that’s why we feel so weirded out, because all the usual signifiers are missing. You go for your mandated daily walk or whatever, but so much of the sensory input and social events that would have marked the year have been replaced by this indoor, screen-based universe.

We all live in comic panels now, but they’re called Zoom windows...

And your comic’s three parallel worlds are almost entirely untethered from the seasons and their rhythm, yet you need something that anchors them. The two things I’ve spotted in X365 are the use of colour and tone to evoke each world, and also the use of humour – what backstory there is comes through jokes like the cyborg PI’s reference to events like “the Kaijumech wars”, an alien squid plague, Jane Austen being a ninja in his world, and the President having been replaced by his own evil clone.

Those jokes are only a couple of landmarks, but they’re enough to map those parallel worlds for the reader.

The cyborg PI’s world is the 2000AD, Marvel UK version of 2020, so it has a hardboiled quality and so I worked in this grayscale, film noir look – which gives the artist certain things straight off, as well as giving you a wry, cynical voice to narrate this inherently ridiculous world where people are having their brains put in robot bodies. The throwaway lines to illustrate this place become important to flesh the world out.

Do you have to try multiple jokes to find the ones that work?

You might have to try one or two to find the best jokes, but essentially you know you need a random-feeling spread of weirdness to bring that world to life in all its insanity.

The weird thing about 2020 is: remember when 2016 was the worst year ever? Remember when people were asking, when is this hell year going to end? “I can’t believe David Bowie died!”

And then 2020 came along…and we are where we are now. I wanted to condense the cyberpunk version into the Charlie Booker’s Screenwipe highlights, by contrast.

Isn’t the despairing thing that we now look at the cyberpunk 2020 from our world and think: I wish we were only dealing with the President’s evil clone. At least the evil clone had been unmasked by the time of your story!

In January, we were in the hardboiled X365 world, before jumping back to our world in February, using a photo-montagey look, still greys but looking quite distinct from the cyberpunk universe. Then chapter 3 in March collided them together, revealing the conceit of the strip, which is that it’s both universes in one story!

I was looking to amuse myself above all, so there was more playing it by ear and feeling things out intuitively. All the work I do the rest of the time is really structured; stories have to be planned out a year in advance, with a synopsis, a drill down into detail, then roughs which you can expand. If I’m drawing a 325-page graphic novel, I know what is happening on page 320 already.

I still love working my way through all that, but I don’t get to make up a story for a while now. But with X365, I get to improvise my way forward, and keep surprising myself. I like a jolt of surprise between chapters.

Like one of the chapters opens with an “Inspector Fartdog” comic – and just for a second the reader thinks that this is yet another dimension being shown to us, just a very crass and cartoony one…

Exactly! I enjoyed people’s confusion when we were suddenly cast out of a cyborg detective world into an exhausted-Mum real world. Quite early on, it felt that each month would have its own tone and feel, and the transitions would be part of the fun.

And just when people thought they’d got used to that, I threw in another completely different world, without even knowing myself what I’m drawing for a while…the fun challenge will be figuring out how to tie it all together at the end.

That’s why, when a new universe comes into the story – and it’s objectively the darkest world we visit – I moved away from the shades of grey and used these bright, vibrant colours, these pinks and yellows.

It reminds me of the lurid landscape from Damnation Alley, which has giant radioactive scorpions roaming across the desert under pink skies – somehow the crummy special effects only make it more visually appealing.

The disconnect between the grimness of that world and the super-garish neon Party Ring biscuit colour palette seemed just what the strip needed. You don’t know what you need until you get there, making a comic this way.

That’s totally the vibe of that dimension; the one where you’ve eaten too many Party Rings.

That notion of the jolt fits with this notion of the arrhythmic year. Shane Black, the screenwriter, talks about the way you can come up with a cool payoff, then go back in the script and plant it earlier in the story – you do the punchline first, then seed it up front.

There’s a couple of moments in the comic which imply a story that’s already in mind – Hannah from our world’s name is familiar to the cyborg detective, and in the lurid Party Ring world, the cyborg detective’s face is all over the place.

Are you letting your instinct plant plot-bombs which you are going to have to figure out how to defuse later?

Yes! I wanted to make it up in a fun stream-of-consciousness way, yet still make the kind of comic that I make – not a shaggy-dog story, but an actual story. There’s no opportunity to wind back and plant some things in advance, as I have been able to while drawing an entire year’s worth of Mega Robo Bros for the forthcoming graphic novel, so I needed to seed and foreshadow things without having any idea of what I was seeding and foreshadowing!

That’s part of the challenge, though; it’s an exercise in trusting your own instincts, and starting to understand that, after making comics for a few years, I can actually trust myself as a storyteller. 

Putting something in the comic and alluding to something, and knowing I’ve got many months to think about the thing I’ve planted there, I could trust the pace of the storytelling – as well as my faith in my own ability – to give myself time and space to resolve it.

When I haven’t been sure of what comes next, I have been able to thing, “Ah well, I’d better vamp for a few more pages.”

Literally, as the cyborg PI is fighting tech-vampires.

Yes! The chapter when he goes and fights vampires in a very dark church was when I was recovering from COVID and I had nothing, really nothing. So I had a fight! In the dark! While I recovered. I like the fight, it’s fine, it makes a fun change, but it was also me buying myself time.

I’m conscious of the fact that we’re coming up on the end of the year, and if I want the story to resolve satisfactorily, that needs to be starting to happen. I’ve been making it up as I go along, but about two-thirds of the way through any given month, I get a sense of where the cliffhanger will be, and I start charting my way to that relatively gracefully.

Sometimes, though, it’s just been spitballing all the way down to the wire…and as we approach the end of 2020, I did take a day to start thinking through the plot as it’s been forming of the last 6 months, and just ensuring I have enough room, enough days, enough panels to round off the story I want to tell.

We have 365 days to play with; I can’t stick an extra panel in! So I’ve avoided promising anything that wouldn’t get satisfactorily delivered on.

See more of Neill’s work at www.neillcameron.com, and check out X365 at Webtoons.

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