Nothing delights me more than listening to cartoonists and storytellers talk about their process. Since the Kickstarter for Much the Miller’s Son: the Doomsday Book launched last week, I thought it would be fun to (virtually) sit down with its creator, Steve, and pick his brain about the book.
For those new to to the work, Much the Miller’s Son follows a lesser known character from Robin Hood’s band of merry men who finds himself caught up in the swell of great events–and wants nothing to do with them! The Doomsday Book collects the previously published Much comics and even adds a few new ones. This work is for mature audiences.
Steve LeCouilliard is an award winning independent cartoonist and storyboard artist from Vancouver, British Columbia. In 2010 he won the Xeric Grant for self-published cartoonists for the third volume of Much the Miller’s Son: Robin’s Seven, or ‘Nobody’s Vault but Mine.’ His sword and sorcery comic, Una the Blade was kickstarted successfully in 2017 and also published by Cloudscape Comics.
Kathleen: How did you come about creating the world and stories of Much the Miller’s Son? What sparked your desire to explore your own version of the folkloric heroes?
Steve: Ever since I was a kid in the 80s, I’ve had a keen interest in historical adventure stories like The Three Musketeers, Zorro and of course, Robin Hood. There’s a romance to the idea of solving problems with a sword and from the point of view of the 20th century, it’s easy to delineate heroes and villains in a way that’s far less certain when you live alongside them.
At some point I read a biography of Errol Flynn, the actor who played Robin Hood in the 1930s film, and he was frankly a pretty awful guy. He was a Nazi sympathizer, a sexual predator, and just all around not great. That led me to think of his embodiment of the Robin Hood character as somewhat suspect. That sort of swaggering masculinity has an ugliness at its core.
In spite of that, the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood remained my favorite. I’ve been largely dissatisfied with other adaptations that try to make the character more gritty and bleak. I feel that the period of the Plantagenet dynasty was bleak enough and the sort of light hearted ballads that proliferated then were a kind of antidote to the hardship of daily life, in a sort of Sullivan’s Travels/Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? way.
The actual inception of the story came from a conversation with some friends about how I would approach a Robin Hood story. The first thing I thought of was to subvert the hero myth by making the main character someone with what I think is a reasonable level of anxiety given the nasty, brutish and short character of medieval life. Romantic characters from medieval literature tend to have an almost suicidal willingness to throw themselves into danger, which is at odds with the basic sense of self preservation most of us experience.
I also took the opportunity to examine the tendency many young men have, myself once included, of becoming infatuated with women they haven’t taken time to get to know. Painful as the experience of unrequited love may be, it’s usually rather stupid. Punishing Much for his inability to self reflect was an oblique way of making fun of my younger self.
As for the other characters, I took inspiration from being raised in the Evangelical church to inform Friar Tuck, a scholar of religion, but a hypocrite capable of twisting scripture to suit his purposes. I modelled Marion on my idea of a college radical. The joke being that her extremist views are things we currently take for granted, such as democracy and women’s rights. Alan a-Dale is a failed comedian trying to build notoriety via connection with a fabled folk hero. John is a gentle simpleton who doesn’t know his own strength, and Will Scarlett is a hardened criminal who’s all for robbing the rich, but not so hot on giving to the poor. Finally, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a put-upon bureaucrat who is only evil because it’s his job.
K: Can you tell us a little about your writing process & artistic process. Do you start with a script & thumbnails? Do you pencil traditionally? Is it all digital?
S: I start with a collection of one, or two sentence ideas that could work as story seeds, then I find two or maybe three of them that could work together and begin breaking the story from there. By ‘breaking’, I mean finding an entry point from which to tell the story. It’s all well and good to know what sort of things I want to see in my story, but figuring out how to get there is a bit of a process.
From there, I create an outline in point form, revising and rearranging bits until the story flows the way I like, then I thumbnail out the whole thing, making notes about what sort of information needs to be conveyed in dialogue. I leave writing the actual dialogue for last in order to keep it fresh. I view this as similar to improv, like how a Judd Apatow film might be made.
As for art process, it varies. Books 1,1 ½, 2, 4 and 5 were drawn in coloured pencil and ink brush, then scanned and coloured digitally, then lettered digitally as well. Book 3 was almost entirely digital.
K: If I recall correctly, you work in animation. Do you feel like this influences how you approach making comics? If so, how?
S: Well it does in the sense that I want my comics to be as free from outside meddling as possible. Animation is highly collaborative, which can be a wonderful thing, but it’s also very expensive, which means the lion’s share of creative decisions come from executives who have no idea how to tell stories or draw cartoons. One reason I make comics is to free myself of creative restrictions. For better or worse, my comics are what I wanted them to be at the time I made them.
K: I feel like I can see traces of Bandes Dessinées in your work. Are there any in particular that you draw inspiration from?
S: Definitely. Asterix and Obelix and The Adventures of Tintin were formative influences on me and I still have a lot of admiration for Franco-Belgian cartoonists today, such as Joann Sfar, Christoph Blain, Jacques Tardi and Lewis Trondheim. The Donjon series is an inspiration, as is Gus and His Gang, the work of Kerascoët, Boulet, Régis Loisel, and pretty much anything French I can get my hands on. The digital painting style I’m currently playing with is inspired by a French artist who goes by the name Yoann.
K: What themes or motifs do you feel it’s important to explore through your work?
S: I feel like I come back to unfairness and rebellion a lot. I’m a pretty anxious person and there’s a part of me that wants to lash out against the oppressive realities of the world whether they afflict me personally or not. I believe that anything that the state can justify doing to its most disenfranchised people, it can eventually justify doing to you and me and that makes everyone’s suffering my concern. For instance, any one of us is an economic downturn away from living on the street, so it seems pretty reasonable that we shouldn’t allow that to happen to anyone ever.
K: What is one thing you hope people take away from reading Much?
S: I guess there are some things I put in there on purpose and other things that come out just because they’re blind spots in the way I see the world. I think that’s true of everyone though. In the beginning, I had to talk myself out of the paranoia that without some editor looking over my shoulder, I’ll reveal some deep dark secret about myself obvious to everyone but me.
I guess the main thrust of my Much stories is to be skeptical of heroes and forgiving of ordinary people. We all want to be good, in whatever way we define that, but we’re just monkeys doing our best. We can’t see our motives perfectly, nor our flaws, and perhaps we can make peace with the fact that we have one short life to live and we’re probably going to fuck it up. Maybe the next generation will do better.
You can find out more about Much the Miller’s Son: The Doomsday Book over on Kickstarter. The campaign ends later this month