Britain a Prophecy is an upcoming urban fantasy digital first comic set in the height of Thatchers England. What follows is an interview with its writer, Elizabeth Sandifer, and artist, Penn Wiggins.
Before we get into the meat of the interview, I think it might be a good idea for you two to introduce yourselves and the comic we’re going to be talking about to the CBH readers who might not be familiar with either of your work.
El Sandifer: Well, I’m El Sandifer. Up until this point I’ve been an independent critic writing for my site Eruditorum Press, where I’ve done a lot of work on both Doctor Who and British comic books. But recently this charming gentleman and I found ourselves going “wait, one of us writes, the other one of us draws, we both love comics as a medium… why don’t we make some?” And now here we are.
Penn Wiggins: And I’m Penn Wiggins. I’ve bounced around a few things, but a few years ago settled back into being an artist, and recently this delightful madwoman suggested we should do comics, so I’ve been doing that.
El: As for Britain a Prophecy, it’s a dark fantasy comic set in 1980s Britain. It’s our take on the sort of classic 90s Vertigo comic. Think Sandman meets V for Vendetta. It’s about a world where, by the terms of an ancient pact, one in ten thousand British subjects are spirited away to Faerie at birth, replaced by fae who are tasked with guiding the story of Britain. Our story starts in 1987, on the eve of Thatcher’s election to a third term. Our story follows Terrence Fitzwilliams, a gay social worker in Manchester who’s sent to find a runaway teenage fairy princess named Taz, unaware that they’re about to get dragged into a vast conspiracy that will change the story of Britain forever.
How did this specific book come about? Was this something El pitched or did Penn really want to do a fantasy series?
El: I first had the broad idea years and years ago, thinking about early 2000 AD. A very specific image popped into my head of a fairy lord… well, it’s our first cliffhanger, so I don’t want to spoil it. But it was a really fun image—something very much in the spirit of early 2000 AD that could never have actually happened in the magazine. It just had too much thrill-power even for them, y’know? And when Penn and I first talked about doing comics, I asked what he’d like drawing and he said fairies, and I thought of it.
Penn: Yeah, I’ve always loved fairy stories. My earliest imaginative play was all fairies, and creepy ones if my parents are to be believed. There’s something just delightful about the fae. Benign but vaguely sinister at the same time; they are home for me. So, what better place to start with comics could there be?
What does the moodboard for this book look like?
Penn: I don’t keep a proper moodboard per se. I’ll start something like it, and just… forget to ever add to it or use it. But Britain a Prophecy is deep in 80’s style for the “modern day” parts of the story. Gay culture, and emerging goth subculture are big ones, given our main cast. The fairies have an almost renaissance fair feel to them, in some cases splashed with the over the top flair you find in 80’s stars, because if your fairy nobility can’t be a little extra, what good are they?
Alright, let’s tackle this from another angle. What three songs would you choose from the Britain a Prophecy playlist to surmise not necessarily the comic’s plot so much as how it feels to read it?
El: We have actually commissioned a playlist from my friend and frequent collaborator Alex Reed, although he’s a nightmarishly busy man and it’s not actually in hand yet. So to pick songs that we’ll be adding to the playlist if he doesn’t do it for us, New Model Army’s “I Love The World,” Tori Amos’s “Silent All These Years,” and Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring” all spring to mind as things that have serious Britain a Prophecy vibes.
Penn: I’m terrible with proper nouns, so I can’t remember any song titles, but I’ve been listening to a fair amount of period music while I work. The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, and the like. My teenage goth self is having fun.
You’ve mentioned in the description for Britain a Prophecy that this is a work along the lines of The Sandman and The Wicked + The Divine, but what non-comics work would you compare to what you’re doing?
Penn: We go in a very different direction from here, but I absolutely adore Seanan McGuire’s stories about fairies, particularly her Toby Daye books, which are also about fairies in the modern world.
El: And when we get into Faerie itself, I suppose we’ve got some similarities to her Wayward Children books.
Penn: Yeah, but spoilers.
El: For me the big one is White Wolf’s Changeling the Dreaming roleplaying game. The reason the aforementioned idea was at the forefront of my mind is that I’d just recently developed it as a Changeling game, which got completely derailed by the pandemic. So when Penn asked for fairies, I had this pretty well-developed story. So I set about reworking the plot so that it wasn’t built for a shared universe. Which ended up being not entirely dissimilar to Alan Moore reworking his pitch for the Charlton characters into something more original—if you’re familiar with Changeling you’ll be able to see where the serial numbers got filed of, but it’s also now very much its own thing. Still, several of the characters came straight out of that game; Terrence is based pretty straightforwardly on Penn’s character in the game, and there’s another character, Medgwick, who’s based on my friend Alex’s, which is why he’s got a special thanks.
Alongside works like Barbalien: Red Planet and It’s a Sin, it seems like there’s something in the air about stories involving the 80s AIDS crisis. Likewise, your book features a major character who is AIDS positive. Why do you think stories of this nature are springing up in the air?
El: I imagine a lot of it is, grimly, that the AIDS crisis is now about forty years in the rear view, which means that an awful lot of the people who lived through it are starting to die. So this absolutely huge, formative event in queer history is rapidly starting to move out of living memory. There’s a certain desire to document it while we still have the people who were there.
I think there’s also a degree of generational tension involved, although largely a productive one. Generation Z is, by all appearances, much more openly queer than past generations. So you’ve got a tension between an extremely large body of queer youth and a generation of elders that was absolutely decimated by AIDS. And the numeric disparity there means that queer culture is currently changing very rapidly, just because there are orders of magnitude more queer twenty-somethings than there are queer sixty-somethings. The kids have control of queer culture right now, which is enormously exciting on a lot of levels, but also obviously generates tension, just as the reverse would. And I think one way that tension is getting navigated is that the older generation is telling the younger one their stories.
I think for our part, as a pair of millennial queers, we’ve got a kind of interesting position in the middle of that debate, and I think Britain a Prophecy’s relationship with queerness has clear roots both in older queer culture and in more contemporary attitudes.
That actually brings me to one of my other questions: What is it about the 80s English queer scene that appeals to you? Or, to put it another way, what made you decide to set this book in the backdrop of Thatcher’s England and not Johnson’s or Blair’s?
El: Well, we’re very consciously engaging with a tradition of comics that emerged from 1980s Britain. So there’s a certain desire to go back to the root, as it were. One of the things we’re doing with this comic is very much taking the thirty years of development in comics that have happened since the 80s and 90s British Invasion and returning to the scene of the crime to do things with Thatcher’s Britain that people like Alan Moore and Pat Mills probably wanted to do but couldn’t get away with at the time.
Penn: In terms of the queer scene, we’re both queer, and if we’re going to do a comic, we’re going to put queer people in it. Actually, one of our leads, Terrence, is a gay man, and that is completely my touch on the script. When we were first discussing this story (several years ago on a road trip to see her parents, I think?) my immediate comment was that if we were setting ourselves in the 80’s, then I absolutely wanted to do a gay man. The AIDS crisis was too big, too important to leave missing from a story set in that time. It matters to me that it is in our England.
Tell us a bit about Terrance and Taz? Who are they to each other? What’s their dynamic?
Penn: Terrance is the kindly, competent gay uncle you wish you had growing up. He’s a fairy commoner working as a social worker in Manchester. Whereas Taz is literally a fairy queen. He would never have met her in normal circumstances, but in this life, Taz is a runaway teenager who crosses Terrence’s desk.
They are flung together a bit by circumstance, but they end up being a really reliable team with mutual respect and trust.
El: Taz is interesting to write because on the one hand she’s a legendary fairy hero, but on the other hand in this specific life she’s had a really tough time, and she’s carrying a lot of trauma from that. That’s an interesting dynamic. She’s also the only character we’re giving voiceover boxes to, which means she gets to give snarky commentary on things. Terrence, meanwhile, is incredibly perceptive and practical. He’s a little bit of an Ursula Vernon character. He’s usually the first one to figure out the details of a situation. And he’s got a level of comfort with the seedier side of Manchester. It’s always fun to write a morally upstanding character who’s entirely at ease talking with very dubious people.
In terms of their dynamic, like Penn said, they really develop a level of trust for each other very quickly. Taz is someone who needed an adult in her life, and Terrence is someone who’s immediately drawn to her mix of competence and damage. And one of the nice things about having a gay male lead is that nobody is ever going to read unwanted sexual tension into their dynamic. Diversity: it’s practical!
When you do character design, where do you start? How much of the actual creation do you stick to El’s descriptions and how much do you go off in your own direction?
Penn: I’m honestly not sure. Working with El is collaborative to an extent that I’ve never had with another artist before. We talk constantly about the scripts and characters as we work on them, and I will end up with a sense of a character based partially on what she’s written for me, partially on the discussions we’ve had about the character, and partially on what feels right while I’m going.
I do a lot of my design work by feel. I’ll start with a body and a face, and tweak until it feels like the right person is looking back at me from my screen. My design sheets end up covered in little notes about the character, and I use layer folders in Clip Studio to basically make them into little dress up dolls, swapping pieces in and out until I have it.
Britain A Prophecy has fairies that have two forms. Their human appearing one will need a sense of style and wardrobe parameters, which has me stalking 80’s fashion history, but the fairy forms are getting whole costumes. For those I’m doing the tried and true method of getting every idea onto paper in a ton of mini sketches and piecing together what I like from them.
Can you give us a rundown on how you designed Taz’s design in the preview images?
Penn: I started with Taz as her 1980’s incarnation, as a goth teen in her human guise. We don’t actually get to see that Taz until page 7, but that’s the Taz we get to see for the majority of the story. For her design, I remembered my own youth, and how I would hide behind my hair, or style. How it was a kind of armor for me, and I took that energy into Taz. She is absolutely hiding, and so I gave her the best armor I could: peak goth fashion.
After that comes the fairy form. When our fairies shift out of their glamors, small bodily changes will happen — things like shifting features, or color palettes, and they get a proper costume. A look that might shift a little between incarnations, like we see with Taz here, but that will be recognizable.
I think of the changes as representing how they see themselves shifting from lifetime to lifetime. A fairy like Taz, who has spent a lot of time in human forms, will have had more time to drift, so I pulled out the 80’s prom dresses for inspiration there. I needed something that could have at one point been a renaissance faire style fairy outfit, but modified by a teenager’s sense of self.
The gown we get in Blake’s era was worked back from there. Regal, but subdued.
The book is obviously coming at its narrative from a leftist perspective, but how have you, as an artist, approached the politics of the comic?
Penn: It is very important to me to draw a diverse England. I grew up as a queer kid in the American South, never seeing myself in art, and that had a striking effect on me as a young person. While I am decidedly not a writer, I do think of myself as a storyteller, and I deeply want to tell the story of a real, rich England.
I do have a tendency to just slip diversity into our comics projects when the opportunity arises. El very rarely bothers to call race, sexual orientation, or similar into her scripts, and relies on me to make sure we’re not falling into the trap of the unmarked cis white default, especially in crowds.
We most definitely talk through major characters on diversity and messaging, and we’ve hired an absolutely brilliant sensitivity reader, Tara Rayers, who has already, just in issue one, helped us add in so much depth that we would have missed.
Without spoiling anything too massive, can you tell us something specific Tara added or noted that just made the book better?
El: Well, the main reason we hired her was because Taz is a trans-racial adoptee with a history of abuse. That’s an experience we very much don’t want to get wrong, and she definitely helped with that by giving a bunch of small suggestions that helped us tune the dialogue throughout, which both made her story a little clearer up front and wove it a little deeper into her characterization. But Tara ended up giving us an extraordinarily comprehensive set of suggestions on a number of issues, and ended up talking us into a pretty significant change to the first scene of the comic.
Penn: Yeah, which ended up with me having to redo Taz’s Blake Era design. Taz in the modern day part of the story is incarnated as an Indian teen, but since we were playing with a particular series of Blake’s paintings in the Blake section of the book, I had originally designed her as a white woman in that lifetime.
Taz, in her modern incarnation, is absolutely powerful, and big, and our villain knows it — but we meet her as a traumatized kid, and she doesn’t know how powerful she is at that moment. We hadn’t thought through the implications there of changing her race and stripping away her apparent power at the same time.
A black Blake era Taz, however, gives us the opportunity to show her as regal, and as a woman of color right away.
El: I think it also just makes Blake’s London a little livelier. The 18th century was when there really started to be a significant Black population in London, and since Blake was pretty vocally anti-racist, at least within the confines of his time, having a Black woman in his world and life added some important texture to it, rescuing him from the stuffy and overly white domain of “Great British Literature” and putting him more in the working class London he lived in and wrote about.
Taking a look at your website, Penn, I noticed that a lot of your work is in watercolors. How does working on a more traditionally drawn comic differ from working in watercolors? Have you considered applying the watercolor style to your work ala Jon Muth?
Penn: Watercolor was definitely my first love. I adore color, and it’s such a vibrant, chaotic medium. I have not had as much time for them since I started working full time on comics, although I’m planning to pull out my paints for covers, in my illuminated digital painting style — a fitting homage to Blake for a comic where he appears on page one. I may also use a splash in the lettering, of all places.
For the comic art, I’m working in Clip Studio on a frankly ridiculous Wacom tablet. It’s definitely a very different tactile experience. Watercolor is loose and imprecise, the paint making as many decisions as the painter. Working digitally is exactly the opposite experience. Digital paint doesn’t run and play on you. I love it, though. The ability to shift and move things around after you’ve already drawn them in digital is delightful. I find the process feels almost like I’m sculpting the drawing, and thinking with my fingers, which works well for me.
It’s funny — when I was a kid I wanted to be a comic book colorist when I grew up, and here I am doing pencils and lettering instead. I suspect I will end up doing a comic with my own colors eventually, but I have not figured out how to do it digitally at the speed I’d need to keep up with a production schedule. A colorist is frankly a magician as far as I can tell.
I do like the idea of combining the two for comics someday. So, I suppose we’ll see if the right project for it comes along.
Given you’re not coloring the book, can you tell me what it’s like working with Nechama Frier in contrast to more individual work?
Penn: It’s kind of magical, honestly. Nechama and I are not working as closely as El and I, where we’re each talking through the process as we go. I’m putting simple coloring notes in the script, and giving her the character design sheets that I am using as I work, and the finished line art files.
Then it’s like Christmas. I never know exactly what she’s going to give me, but it’s always been brilliant. It’s kind of a perfect style for the piece, too. She’s been breathing so much life into the pages. I’m really excited to hand her the two I just finished, and see what she does with them!
As for how it’s affected my work flow, I feel like I’m spending more time on each panel at the pencils stage, putting in lines for background details, partially because I’m free to — I’ve gotten a ton of time back into my work day, because I’m a phenomenally slow digital colorist, but also because it seems to play very well with her work. It’s a lot of fun, honestly, and I really like how full the pencils are looking with the added detail.
I’m generally not calling many specifics for color. The notes in the script will have things like time of day, or descriptions of specific real world things we’re referencing, things like that. The design sheets are colored, as you’ve seen, but I’ve told her to take them mostly as the mood of the character, and I’ll tell her if some specific choice is plot relevant. Largely I want to stay out of her way, and let her do her thing. I think you can see in comics when the different artists working on the project are stepping all over each other’s toes, and I really think we’re avoiding that beautifully.
What’s your favorite small detail about the world of Britain a Prophecy? Something a reader might not notice on a first reading.
Penn: I tend to have a pretty full sense of a character while I’m working with them, and often that will show in little background elements in panels. Pictures on the wall of things that matter to them, or trinkets stashed around in their space. A fair amount of thought goes into small elements of costume design. People’s fae forms often have some hints about what their magic is. Oh, and shoes. I spend a lot of time picking people’s shoes.
El: I’m pretty proud of some of the detail in that opening Blake scene. The poem that the Albion Rose is dictating to him at the end is Europe a Prophecy, which he claimed in an introduction to one copy of it was dictated to him by a fairy. Penn and Nechama even modeled the coloring on the Ancient of Days painting off a specific copy of the poem. The image of her on the flower is based on one in The Song of Los, which he wrote the same year. And his line about “What am I now to do” is something he wrote a few decades later in Milton a Poem. So that’s some extremely specific historical reference. And we’ve tried to do that in other places as well. When they go to a gay bar, it’s a real gay pub in 1980s Manchester. The council estate on page four is the Park Court estate, in Wythenshawe. We’re entirely willing to fudge things when it’s convenient, but when we can introduce bits of proper historical fealty we’re having fun with it.
Mostly I like Penn’s shoes though. He’s got really good taste in shoes.
Can you go more in-depth on your taste in shoes? For that matter, what characters would you say have the best shoe tastes and which ones the worst?
Penn: Hah! I love men’s dress shoes particularly, and I’m a bit of a nerd about them. My personal collection highlights are a pair of vibrant teal monk strap Fleuvogs, and a more classic warm brown pair of Allen Edmonds “Rogues,” a derby with a pretty neat brogueing pattern on just the toe. My hot take for men’s dress shoes is that I don’t like wing tips at all, so those are basically the perfect casual dress shoe in my opinion.
I’ve not designed him yet, but I guarantee you’ll see Medgwick sporting the high fashion looks. I’m actually looking forward to spending a little too long on what was in fashion in 87 for him.
Terrence is getting my sense of style, too, to an extent, but the more practical, day to day looks. He’s been drawn with a chelsea boot, and a chukka style so far, both of which I would happily add to my collection.
Hmm, as for worst? Oh, that’s absolutely going to have to be Teddy, the Shapeless, the head of the Manchester Worker’s Council.
As the letterer on the book, do you think about where the word balloons and sound effects will go when drawing the pages or do you focus on the pages first and then apply the word balloons where you think they’d fit?
Penn: I spend a lot of time thinking about page composition, as a whole, and do the lettering almost first! It is low key my favorite part of the job.
For each scene, so two to four pages, I will go through and do tiny page mock ups with pencil and paper with little more than panel layout with lettering balloons, and extremely rough ideas of what’s happening in each panel. That lets me see how the scene will flow from panel to panel and page to page, and I can check that I like where all the story and emotional beats are.
I can’t do any of that in my head, reading the script, so I’m looking for pacing problems at this stage. I have definitely called El over and said “hey, I’m throwing an extra panel in here” or “I need to move this word balloon over.” things like that.
My layouts go to Illustrator next for panel gutters and lettering, and I do my art underneath. I usually need to shift the balloons around a little after the art is drawn in, but the basic shape and placement of the lettering is already done. The only bit of lettering that happens afterward is the balloon tails, since they need to be more precise.
Having read the script, you often delineate between pages with panels that are structured in a specific way (9 panel grids and the like) and ones where Penn can, and I’m quoting here, “do as thou wilt.” How do you decide which pages get the formalist treatment and which ones just get the panel numbers, if that?
El: For the most part I try to get out of Penn’s way because he’s fucking brilliant and really adept at using the page. While we were doing the Olive Peaseblossom comics, we did to learn the medium a bit, I started with a much denser panel description and a much more detailed set of instructions on page layout, but I quickly realized that, first of all, Penn doesn’t need that much direction, and second of all, since we live together, we can work a lot of stuff out verbally. Our conversations tend to be roughly along the lines of “Hey honey, I’m making eggs, do you want any?” “Sure, and also what do you think about breaking the panel border at the end of this scene?” “Oh, that’s great. Bacon?” A lot of the time when there’s a lot of detail in the script it’s me just summarizing something we decided on so he doesn’t forget it when he gets to that page.
When I move to either of the extremes—spelling out exactly how to lay out a page or not even bothering with full panel descriptions—it’s usually because Penn’s options are more constrained. For instance, we’ve got one character, Evan, whose pages are all on a nine-panel grid. And other places, when I cram eight panels of dialogue onto a page there’s just not a ton of options besides the eight panel grid. So generally when I go into detail like that it’s because there’s really only one way to do what I’m asking for. On the other extreme, sometimes I realize that I’ve asked for something that’s really going to limit Penn’s options, so I cut way back on other requests to give him the space to navigate it. There’s a scene late in the book where Evan has a big villain monologue. So having written a scene that’s two pages of nine-panel grid where all that’s happening is one dude talking, I didn’t include panel descriptions so he could at least figure out a way to vary up the visual composition. There’s also a fight scene. We did one of those in our second Olive Peaseblossom strip and, frankly, we screwed it up; we left out a key beat. I called the panels on that one, and I think that was part of the problem. So this time I Marvel Methoded the fight scene, which is how Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie tend to do their fight scenes, figuring that it would give Penn the freedom to make the decisions he needs to make in order to get that scene to work.
What’s it like working with Bob Proehl as an editor?
Penn: Oh, Bob is absolutely a delight. He’s mostly working at the script stage, although we’re going to be showing him finished pages as well. There’s not a ton that can be easily fixed on a finished page, but he’s got a really good eye.
El: Yeah, he’s wonderful. Given that, for all my experience writing, this is my first time writing fiction. So having an experienced and frankly brilliant writer looking at my scripts is really useful. He’s really, really good at identifying when a scene isn’t quite working and laying out what the problem is, or at when something isn’t actually clear. Which is a particular problem for this comic given that a non-trivial amount of the worldbuilding gets done in conversation with Penn.
On top of that he’s just a wonderful person. He absolutely gets what we’re going for with this comic, and is on board with both our aesthetic and political ethos.
Since he doesn’t appear in the preview, can you tell us more about Evan and, for that matter, the aforementioned Medgwick?
El: Evan is Terrence’s mortal brother, which is to say that they’re both fairies who, improbably, were born to the same mortal parents. But in fae terms, they couldn’t be more different. Terrence is an ordinary, salt of the earth commoner. Evan, meanwhile, is one of the most important and prestigious nobles among the fae—the legendary Ancient of Days, with the power to visit the past and preview the future. His version of the story of Britain is one of heroes, greatness, and empire. So very much the villain of the piece.
Medgwick Chamberlin, the Earth of Teeth, is our take on, basically, the shitbag noble. He’s the one they sent up to Manchester to keep an eye on things (Manchester being ruled by a highly democratic “Worker’s Council” of commoners), which is to say the one nobody else can stand and so gave a crap job hours away from everyone else. Which isn’t to say he’s incompetent—he’s an entirely savvy fellow. It’s just that he’d rather do a lot of cocaine. He’s very fun to write, in a scene-stealing sort of way.
Given you’re working in the field, what web comics have you read prior to working on Britain a Prophecy and how have they impacted how you approach the medium?
El: I haven’t actually been that into webcomics for quite a while—almost everything I’m reading now is just sort of the last holdovers from almost twenty years ago now when I first got into webcomics, a list that’s on the one hand quite well curated at this point, but on the other hand is absolutely shocking in its datedness. It’s mostly stuff from that early wave of webcomics that used them as an alternative to the newspaper strip. I’m aware that there’s a lot of interesting stuff that’s happened since 2004—I gather the kids are doing cool stuff on Webtoons these days? But it’s not a scene I’m really in, per se.
For the most part, Britain a Prophecy is written with an eye towards print. The form it’s taking is that of the standard-length American comic book—the same format Sandman and The Wicked + The Divine and The Invisibles came out in, because those are the books it’s very consciously in conversation with. We’re focusing on digital distribution early on because it’s much easier, but I’d love to see it in nice attractive trade paperbacks or to get picked up by an indie publisher and in shops.
As a frequent reader of your blog, El, it’s clear that you predominately work in literary criticism rather than narrative fiction. How has this affected your approach to writing Britain a Prophecy? How does working in a more visual medium change things?
El: One of the appealing things about comics to me—and I think the reason they ended up being the medium that finally broke through my strange resistance to the idea of writing fiction—is that they’re a medium that rewards a kind of analytical approach. I certainly don’t want to say that this is the only way to approach them, although I think if you look at the writers I’m drawn to you’ll find a certain tendency towards formalism, but one way that writing a comics page can work is to think of it as an amount of space that you have to divvy up appropriately. An issue has a finite number of pages, a page can hold only so much stuff, and you have to successfully figure out how to use that space. There can be a puzzle-solving aspect to it, and that’s been helpful in getting past some of my unfamiliarity with this kind of writing.
Obviously there’s more to it than just the puzzle-solving. But I think comics allow for a degree of forensic, analytical thinking that, in prose fiction, would risk becoming unpleasantly cold and clinical. I don’t want to say it can’t work, because, like, I think it’s pretty obvious that Alan Moore approached Jerusalem pretty analytically, but you’re probably setting yourself up for failure if you come out of the gate trying to write Jerusalem. That’d require some hubris. Whereas we, being paragons of humility, are coming out of the gate trying to write V for Vendetta.
What went into the process for designing the logo?
El: When it came to the logo—and the text page in the preview—there was only one option in my mind, which was to ask James Taylor. Not the world-famous singer-songwriter, who to my knowledge does not moonlight in graphic design, but the cover artist on all of my criticism books. He’s an absolutely brilliant graphic designer who has never done bad work for me, and the thought of launching a major new venture like this without having him contribute to it was literally unthinkable. So we described the book to him, and he came back with two options—a punk one and a more traditional urban fantasy one. Both were lovely, but the punk one just leapt off the page and had a clear statement of energy and personality, and we went for it immediately.
What is it about Blake’s work that appeals to you?
El: On a basic level, I enjoy the ostentatious and hubristic weirdness of it. Like, there’s just something fundamentally appealing about a guy who went “I’m going to invent an entirely new medium and then use it to write a lengthy personal mythology featuring gods of my own invention.” The spectacular weirdo energy of that is just very up my alley. And if you’re writing about Britain, which, for whatever reason, I often seem to be, he makes a really good icon of the tradition of radical strangeness within it. Like, you’ve got someone whose philosophical worldview reached very clearly back to the Diggers and the Levellers who then all but invented romanticism and remained an iconic figure to 1960s psychedelia, and whose status as a literal visionary who claimed that his poems were dictated to him by fairies makes him extremely compatible with certain approaches to fantasy literature.
On a more personal level, when I was getting into magic and what you might broadly call paganism, one of my major influences was Alan Moore, who famously worships a Roman snake god that’s been conclusively shown to have actually been a glove puppet. And I really like that approach. Gods are kind of like lettuce, and you should look your farmer in the eye when you buy them, you know? But I felt like worshipping Glycon was very clearly missing the point. But back in grad school one of my mentors was the late and brilliant Don Ault, who was one of the world’s foremost experts on both William Blake and Carl Barks. So I knew about Blake and his mythology just from being around Don, and it was obviously perfect for my purposes. And so my patron goddess is Ahania, who’s a relatively minor figure in Blake, although from what she’s told me it’s clear Blake dramatically underestimated her importance, or more likely that she just didn’t fancy him enough to tell him all of it. But having done that, it became an obvious reference to reach for in my work, until at this point it’s just sort of a running joke that Blake is going to turn up somewhere in a given project.
Although as the title and first two pages suggest, the Blake influence in this one runs pretty deep.
Penn: I really admire him as an artist and storyteller. His figures are expressive, and his watercolor paintings are delicate when they need to be, and full of life. I have a giant Night of Enatharmon’s Joy print hanging in my office, and I love it. It’s breathtaking in person. El and I got the chance to see a bunch of his work last year just before the world went to hell, and it’s all just stunning.
And there really is something undeniably cool about the way he worked on his Illuminated prints. The marriage of florid lettering and etching, that he could revisit again and again to reimagine the piece by just printing another copy. I strongly feel like, throughout his work, if you look at the repaintings of the figure Urizen, the god in his mythology of stagnant single vision and order, you can see Blake try to forgive him. He is painted more sympathetically, with tears in his eyes, and a sense of horror on his face in the later copies of The Book of Urizen, that simply are not there in the first prints.
Also, I’m El’s partner in life and comics, but also in spirituality and magic, so I have added Blake’s mythological figures into my own, primarily Heathen, practice. Although, I work more closely with Vala and Enitharmon.
The title of the first arc of the series, The Last War in Albion, is shared by another of El’s works, a massive essay on British comics focused on the works of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. As such, to what degree has their work influenced both you in general and the work you are creating together?
El: I mean, the 80s and 90s British scene and the stuff that followed—DC’s Vertigo Line and then later works like The Wicked + The Divine—were absolutely huge influences on me. I had read a bunch of cape stuff when I was like 10 and 11–early 90s Marvel, basically, falling out of love with it a couple of months before the Clone Saga started in Spider-Man. And then I got back into them around 1997 when I discovered Neil Gaiman by way of Tori Amos, which quickly led me to Alan Moore. And the scale of Alan Moore’s influence on me is literally just indescribable. That’s an influence that goes beyond comics and into my whole worldview and spiritual system.
So having gotten back into comics, I went into my local comic shop for the first time in years and said “hey, this is what I’m enjoying, what current books should I read?” And they handed me stuff like Transmetropolitan, which is obviously a deeply cursed influence now, but was huge at the time, and Promethea, which completely changed my life. I came to Morrison somewhat later, as more of a missing link in this scene that was already an influence on me. But it all flows out of, basically, discovering Sandman and Tori Amos around the same time. The comics I’m interested in as an adult are pretty much all stuff that I got to through some number of hops from Sandman. Britain a Prophecy is very much a matter of going back to those influences—it’s consciously imagined as our take on the 90s Vertigo comic. And since I was separately writing about 90s Vertigo comics, it seemed appropriate to reuse the title, as a sort of nod to that. Especially since it describes the plot of Britain a Prophecy perfectly well too.
Penn: As for myself, I actually hadn’t read any Moore or Morrison as a young person. But I’ve definitely read and loved writers that followed from that tradition. I think Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s influence on my work is obvious—sometimes I worry it’s too obvious. And actually, I had read Morrison’s X-Men and Batman runs before I knew who he was in any real sense. I have been getting into Moore lately, though. I read Watchmen and loved it, and I’m about halfway through Jerusalem now.
El: Well, traditional publishing just seemed like a tall order for our first comic. Like, I don’t rule it out down the line, either for future projects or to come on board this one and widen our distribution, but it just didn’t seem like a sensible place to start for us. I have a lot of experience crowdfunding, I’m comfortable with it, and honestly, I like the level of control involved.
In terms of Kickstarter vs Patreon, we’re aiming for this to be an ongoing comic that’s going to run for three or four years. And for serialized work, Patreon just feels like the more natural choice. It’s what I use for most of my work these days, and there’s a lot to be said for the fact that it’s a solid monthly income, especially for something like a comic where you’ve got recurring freelancer expenses.
We did use the Patreon I use for my critical work for those Olive Peaseblossom comics we did as warmups, and they went over perfectly well there, but at the end of the day that Patreon is geared towards supporting my critical work, which I’m not abandoning to do Britain a Prophecy. This project has a bunch of other people contributing to it, not least Penn, for whom it’s a full time job, less in the “forty hours a week” sense and more in the “eats every waking hour of his life” sense. So creating a bespoke Patreon for this project seemed like the most sensible approach, especially because we actively need additional income on top of what I already make to afford to pay our freelancers. Nechama, in particular, is really essential to the comic working, but she’s also a bona fide professional who we’re paying an industry standard rate to.
So while I’m kind of the public face for the project as the person with an existent fan base and a propensity for being a loudmouth on the Internet, I’m pretty much at the back of the line for actually making money off of it, which is as it should be given how much work everyone is putting into making this story come to life.
If you would like to support Britain a Prophecy, you can follow them on Patreon. This will ensure everyone is paid what they deserve for this truly amazing comic.