Second in our series of mini-interviews picking the brains of the 54-strong army of creators behind November’s Nelson – our 250 page graphic novel with all profits going to Shelter – is Woodrow Phoenix. Co-editor and responsible for the overall visual design of the book, his chapter as creator takes place in 1969, expanding the cast and history that surround the 1-year old Nel Baker.
Your chapter introduces a lot to the world of Nelson, such as characters, relationships, and themes that later creators would take up and run with. What were your intentions for 1969?
I wanted to give a ‘slice of life’ sense of South London in 1969. My parents arrived in England in the mid-fifties and they had a real shock waiting for them. Their stories about how badly they were treated and the awful conditions they were forced to endure are terrible. So the beginning of Nelson was an ideal place to touch on some of that. My dad didn’t work on the buses but a lot of Caribbean immigrants did. I knew if I could take Rob’s opening and build on it to flesh out Jim and Rita’s family, add a few surprises, we’d have a texturally rich chapter filled with enough incident and subplot material to give those who came later a lot of potential story points and themes to expand on.
As you say, certain elements of this chapter are drawn from your own life. Conceptually, did you hope that creators would do the same thing during their own chapters?
I expected people would find it natural to do so, given the nature of the project. Projecting ourselves into an earlier time, we could create new material fuelled by memories, reflecting on what shaped us, things we wish we’d done and some we maybe wish we hadn’t. A few creators had to depict a Nel much older than they were or write about a period before they were born, but Rob and I would give the context for them to work from if they needed it, and they did wonderful time-travelling stuff.
You’ve been the driving force behind the book’s visual design. What was your design rationale behind the simple but striking cover?
The division of the title Nelson into NEL and SON appears to be just a visual device but when you’ve read a few chapters in, you realise that the key to one of the main themes of the book was right in front of you. That’s my favourite kind of cover. Covers generally demand lots of arguments and many revisions. But the design for this cover came together very quickly, one of many indications that Rob and I were on the same wavelength. While we were setting out how we intended the project to look I sent him a few layout sketches for page design and a potential cover idea. He seized on my thumbnail cover rough, put the image of Nel’s face behind the type and sent it back. We both loved the result and wanted to stay true to the power of that composition as we refined the design. There were lots of tweaks, but the initial concept remained pure from those first two combined sketches, which is pretty miraculous.
London-based Woodrow has been creating comics, animation, design and illustration for editorial, advertising, and publishing since 1988. He is perhaps best known as the creator of unconventional yet affecting graphic novel, Rumble Strip (Myriad, 2008) and author of Plastic Culture: How Japanese Toys Conquered The World (Kodansha, 2006), as well as his many collaborations with Ian Carney.
Nelson is currently available to pre-order in the Blank Slate webstore, in both softcover and limited-edition hardcover. Be sure to be amongst the first to get hold of it when it launches at the end of November! In the meantime, please follow the book’s official Facebook page for up-to-the-minute news on the book as well as more features such as this.