Comics: Nimue Brown on Hopeless, Maine: Personal Demons

New American Gothic

By , Columnist

Continuing my exploration of Archaia Entertainment’s roster of creators, I’d like to introduce you to Nimue Brown, co-creator with Tom Brown of Hopeless, Maine. As Tom revealed over the course of our conversation, Nimue has played a key role in bringing that haunted isle to life even as she supplied each of its diverse denizens with their proper voice.

Despite the fact that it marks her first foray into creating comics, Nimue’s ability to invest the characters and settings of Hopeless, Maine with a palpable life of their own will come as little surprise to those lucky souls who are familiar with her previous efforts as a poetess, blogger and author. Still, how she got directly involved with the crafting of that webcomic-turned-graphic novel…well, that is a tale worth hearing.

Below, Nimue reveals how she got involved as the writer of the series, details how her collaboration with Tom works, and even provides a few hints of what the future holds for that beleaguered land and its hardy inhabitants.

Nimue and Tom Brown signing at Watersons, Northampton, England from FB.jpg

How do you describe Hopeless, Maine, and what can you tell us about the characters and their world without giving too much away?

It’s set on a Gothic little island off the coast of Maine. It might be historical, it might be caught in some sort of time warp… I’m not saying. From the front cover inwards, you know there’s going to be magic, and unnatural creatures and strangeness, but we try to avoid explaining too much, partly for reasons of plot, partly because as readers we don’t enjoy having everything spelled out for us. I think it would be fair to say that none of the characters are normal, by any measure, but at the same time they are a lot like real people, most of whom aren’t that normal either.

So where did this all come from, and how did it develop into the series as we know it today?

The island and the core characters Tom came up with before he met me. He’d already written and drawn some pages when we first got talking, and I thought they were great. I was just going to be a fan girl, I thought. It took him a while to persuade me to take on the writing—I didn’t feel equal to it—but I’m glad now I took the plunge. I’ve had to learn a lot as we went along. As I see it, what I’ve done is taken the core ideas Tom had, filled in the gaps, fleshed out the characters and simply told the story that was there all along. Tom, however, has a totally different take on this.

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Is this something that you could happily write for the long term or do you have a definite story arc—a definite beginning, middle and end—planned out for the series?

There is an overarching story and it should run to six books, if I’ve figured it out properly. The narrative is written, and although it wanders around a fair bit, there’s one coherent story that has started in the first book and runs all the way through to the end, underpinning all the other adventures.

I keep writing prequels though, so there’s no guarantee that the six graphic novels will be all that happens.

What about this particular world makes it such rich soil for creation?

Tom’s original premise sets up a most wonderful balance between boundary and limitlessness. The island itself is hard to leave, so having a cast of characters mostly trapped there makes the human side delightfully claustrophobic. There’s little scope to run away from the past in a place like Hopeless.

On the other side of the equation is the magic, which gives almost boundless possibilities, aside from actually leaving. Then, we’ve drawn steampunk elements into the mix which gives me a lot to play with as background detail, too. I think it’s the juxtaposition of tight restriction and wild possibility that makes me enjoy working with the setting so much.

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I seem to detect some faint hints of past masters’ work in the mix, with H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos perhaps being most dominant. Am I way off base, or did that and other creators’ work exert some real influence on the world of Hopeless, Maine?

We are both a bit Lovecraft affected, but more than that, it’s the people who have jammed humorously on Lovecraft who really inspired how we do things. Neil Gaiman especially. But we love the cuddly Cthulhus, and anything that mixes horror and comedy and sends you off in unexpected directions. Also there’s a Clive Barker influence—his ideas about monstrosity, how sometimes the real monsters are human and the monstrous looking things are not innately evil, shaped both of us.

Who are some of the other writers and/or artists who have influenced you? What about their work captured your imagination…and how did you make it your own?

As a writer I’m constantly being influenced by everything I come into contact with. I try and absorb as much as I can from as many different sources. Then there’s some kind of amalgamating process that happens without me paying too much attention to it, and I cough things up—a bit like owl pellets perhaps—and there’s a new thing, although sometimes you can still see the mouse heads.

One of the key influences for this, aside from Barker and Gaiman, would be Nathaniel Hawthorn—I’d not been to New England when I started work on the project, so I was drawing on his stories for a sense of both the landscape and the Gothic. I’ve read a lot of Victorian literature, so that’s generally in the mix.

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How do you and Tom typically work together creating this and your other work, and how that might have changed over time?

Well, when we started out there was an ocean between us. I wrote the script for the first two books one scene at a time, emailing them to Tom as I went to see how he liked it, and then he’d send me the finished pages back, so we got to each comment on what the other was doing, and I learned more about how words and art can relate. The big change came from being able to work in the same space.

Watching Tom lay out pages, I learned how to do that, and now I write with a much better sense of how it could all sit on the page. We’re talking all the time, sharing ideas, feeding back and contributing to each other’s work, and I think that’s developed both of us and made us more confident about what we do. We’re poised to start a new thing where we aim to do one page at a time, starting at the beginning of the day with a blank piece of paper, so that’s going to push us further with the collaborating.

What makes Tom such a good creative foil for you?

I am not a visual person. I have so little visual imagination; I’ve learned to fake it for novels, but my thinking is all in words. So when I write something I have no idea what it’s going to look like, and it’s really exciting for me watching that develop into a visual image. Tom goes places I could not have imagined, and that’s inspired me to push further and take more risks. I think in turn because I’m not telling him what to draw—so many authors do that, which is weird because artists are always going to have a better idea about what will look good—he’s able to really go for it. We suit each other well.

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You’re also an author of prose works. Do you approach writing those differently in any way? In other words, do you have to switch mental gears, so to speak, when you move from one medium to the other, or is it all writing to you?

When I started on the graphic novel work, I found the absence of a third person narrator terrifying. I was so used to depending on that voice to get plot and detail across. Practice has made it a lot easier. I also have to confess that I didn’t know much about how people normally write for comics, so went for something I did know, and wrote it like it was a radio play, concentrating on voices conveying a story. I still mostly do that—I listen to the radio a lot, it suits how I think and it keeps me focused on telling a story through dialogue.

What do you get from writing, generally, that your other endeavors don’t provide?

The mad rush of an addict getting their fix! I’ve always written. I do other things too—music, crafty things—but there is definitely something I don’t get from those other creative activities. I don’t feel as much like me when I’m messing about with yarn or tunes. I think writing is simply a part of who I am while the rest of it is stuff I do.

What does Hopeless, Maine give you that you can’t get from anything else?

There’s a huge emotional attachment there because it was the project that brought us together. It has a place in my life—first graphic novel, the most successful thing I’ve done so far, and without the closeness developed by working together, we might not have ended up married. I can already see, moving forward with other projects, that creatively there are other things ahead that will be just as powerful and rewarding for me.

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What do you hope your readers get from your work, in general, and from their visits to Hopeless, Maine in particular?

Food for thought, inspiration, places and people to play with and wonder about. The books I love most are the ones I keep coming back to in my head, wondering “what if,” daydreaming a bit—if I can give other people a space like that, I’ve achieved something.

What’s next for you?

Next release is a steampunk novel, Intelligent Designing for Amateurs. Tom did the cover, and had it all tested on him as I was writing it. There’s a project with Professor Elemental, and I’ve got a couple of other collaborative things in the pipeline, very vague and early at the moment. I’m also writing a book about prayer, but I think that’s going to take a while. It’s a complex subject.

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How about the denizens of Hopeless, Maine?

If I get an idea for a story, I’ll revisit Hopeless, but I would need something new to say for that to make sense.

Anything else you’d like to add before I let you get back to work?

Thanks for the excellent questions. I do have this whole other stream of Druid non-fiction going on, with daily blogging and, if anyone makes it to the Books page, there are two free poetry eBooks over there, with luscious Tom Brown covers on them.

The new project with Tom will be going up as and when at the Hopeless, Maine website—the first two installments of the graphic novel series are on there already, and other goodies, including a song about Hopeless, Maine from The Army of Broken Toys, and some free prose fics related to the project. Inevitably it’s not great picture quality because if it was, it would take forever to download, but it gives an impression if you want to try before you buy.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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