Comics: Tom Brown on Hopeless, Maine: Personal Demons

New American Gothic

By , Columnist

The cover of the webcomic version of Hopeless, Maine: Personal Demons, featuring art by Tom Brown.

A few columns back I introduced you to Moro Rogers, the creator of the otherworldly City in the Desert graphic novel series published by Archaia. I also promised more interviews with that company’s well-stocked roster of talent. And I’m loath to let such a promise go unfulfilled.

Tom Brown is the artist and co-creator, with his wife Nimue, of Hopeless, Maine: Personal Demons. Beginning life as a webcomic before finding new expression as a critically acclaimed graphic novel, this first volume in the series focuses on the life and times of a young orphaned girl, Salamandra, and her fellow inhabitants of the desolate titular isle. As the above suggests, this is a world filled with shadows and shades, an eerie and often desolate place despite glimpses of the profusely detailed architecture and rich language uttered in hushed, even strangled tones by its denizens.

And yet it’s also home to bright hope and the warmth of undying fellowship, a land that offers rare delights to those who visit it, whether in the flesh…or in spirit, as eager readers.


How do you describe Hopeless, Maine to those unfamiliar with it?

What I usually say is, if you like the Harry Potter books from about four on, you'll probably like Hopeless, Maine. It's a bit dark and a bit strange, somewhere between [Neil] Gaiman and [Hayao] Miyazaki.

So where did the series come from? Was it all sparked from the town’s name, a character, or…?

It actually started from an old independent comic project of mine, called New England Gothic. I thought there was still some potential in the idea that I hadn't managed to realize in my first attempt. Then Salamandra came along, and then Nimue...and the whole thing just started to flow.

Tom Browns Tea Dragons one by_copperage-d5tjq2x.jpg

How did you and Nimue develop the series from that initial idea? And could you describe that process for us? Is it a case where she handles the basic narrative and background aspects of the story, while you focus on the visuals, or is there more of a give and take to it than that?

It's all about the give and take. I did start the series before I met Nimue, so I had the setting and most of the main characters in mind anyway. Then I asked Nimue to do a story explaining the reasons for Salamandra's wrappings—this comes later—and it became clear to me that Nimue understood Salamandra better than I did. Since then it's been mostly a grown-up sort of play.

We still discover details as we're working on the books; for instance I wanted some kind of a cool, interesting background for the first two pages of Book 2, and I drew a massive abandoned Victorian industrial complex and then I showed it to Nimue and said 'What is this?' and it’s now turned into the Gnii refinery and is part of the island's history.


So, how long did it take to get it into its current shape, and much how did it change during that process?

This is actually my second time. I did Book 1 all the way through twice, and during this time I discovered manga, and decided that was the style that needed to inform the character's appearance, hence the second version. I also discovered that I didn't like inking, and let the pencils show in the second version, so overall it took a couple of years and it changed a lot. When I completed the two-page spread that begins Book 1, I knew I had the look I wanted for Hopeless.


How do you work on the stories themselves? Is that something you work out together, beforehand, or is your approach simpler than that, something along the lines of she writes the script and you draw it?

That was how we started, although parts of my original script have made it to the final cut. From Book 2 onwards, it became much more interactive as a process which is a hell of a lot more fun.

I know that you’ve worked together in the past, so I was curious if that is your typical approach to developing and creating stories?

Really, this is my first comics story; before that it was all cover work, so there is no typical approach for me.

Well, how did you create the art for this story? And what tools and materials do you use? Is this done the old fashioned way, with pencils, inks, etc. on paper, or did you create it all electronically?

In Book 1, I did all the pages out in pencil with shading and then scanned and added tones, glows and highlights on the computer. In Book 2, the same thing except with watercolour on the originals.

Hopeless Main Private Demons_chapter_2_cover_by_CopperAge.jpg

Is that typically how you create your art? And why do it that way? What does that approach to making art offer that other methods don’t?

Yes, this is my usual method. To be honest I just wandered into it. Since, I've discovered that there seems to be an advantage in being off on my own a bit stylistically. Letting the pencil show through gives it a handcrafted quality that suits the time period of the story and it’s also a nod to many of the dead artists whom I learned from.

Since Hopeless, Maine first found life as a webcomic, I was wondering what changes you might have needed to make while preparing to release it as a printed book?

Our editor at Archaia asked for some additional pages and we added some two-page spreads; they also improved the lettering and word balloons.

Why do it as a book at all? Was that the plan all along, or more of an afterthought?

The series was always intended to be in book form, yes—only Books 1 and 2 were planned to be in webcomic form and actually came after the script for the rest of the series. Long story...

I love actual books. We are both bibliophiles.


Why do it with Archaia? Why not self-publish it?

Well, we knew we wanted a publisher to reach a wider audience and to spare us from the technical process. I've been a fan of Archaia for years. I love the fact that they take a chance on creative and quirky titles and consistently produce high quality books.

What do you get from working on Hopeless, Maine that your other artistic endeavors don’t offer?

This is the story that I always wanted to tell, this is our baby; everything I love is in here.

How about your readers? What do you hope that they get from your work as a whole, and from Hopeless, Maine, in particular?

This may sound silly, but, people to care about. I hope to entertain and enchant, but from the beginning I've sort of imagined people sitting around a table in a cafe or something and talking about Salamandra and Owen.

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

I've just finished the cover art for issue two of the Professor Elemental comic, and right now I'm working on a project with Steampunk author Jonathan Green, called Clemency Slaughter and the Legacy of D'Eath. We're doing that with a publisher but funding it through Kickstarter.

Anyone who wants to stay abreast of what I'm doing might want to check out my deviantArt page. clemency_with_text_by_copperage-d5w9zei.jpg

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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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