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Artist of Burke and Hare
Published by: Insomnia Publications

Interviewed by: Richard Vasseur - (Posted: 6/7/2009)

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Will Pickering

Richard: How did you first start drawing professionally?

Will: The only way anyone does: I just kept drawing and calling myself an artist until somebody offered to pay me for something. That something has only intermittently been comics, but you take what you can get.

Richard: Why do you like working at Insomnia?

Will: It's not really like that. There's no "at" to be at - I've never been to their offices, I just scribble away at my drawing board in the house like I would for anyone else. Their enthusiasm is a definite boost, though: I'll be virtually incommunicado for weeks at a time between sending in a batch of pages, and then I'll get an email straight back from Nic or Crawford telling me I'm awesome. Which is always nice to hear.

Richard: Who are Burke and Hare?

Will: William Burke and William Hare were a pair of migrant Irish labourers who wound up in Edinburgh in the late 1820s, drifting from job to job and spending their meager wages on drink. What makes them different from countless others is that in 1827, while living in the same backstreet dosshouse, they hit on a moneymaking scheme that turned them into the most prolific serial killers of the age. Two hundred years later, they're still infamous, although a lot of misconceptions have grown up around them - We go back to the original documents, Burke's confession, the trial transcripts and so on, to dispel some of the myths and show how in many ways the truth is even more appalling.

Richard: Why do people like to find out more about Historical figures?

Will: One level, itís the same reason we like fiction: itís good exercise for our overdeveloped hominid brains, that revs up the synapses and breaks us out of the rut of only thinking about our own milieu. But beyond that, it actually helps make sense of the swirling chaos of half-explained and misdigested factoids that would otherwise constitute our view of the past, and of how we got from there to here. Itís easy for academic history to become quite impersonal - a procession of sweeping analyses of socioeconomic trends, legislation and pig-iron figures punctuated by the occasional black swan event like a plague or a revolution - but historical biography gives you the human dimension: the psychology, the attitudes, the personal relationships, the physical conditions in which people lived, worked, fought and loved.

It establishes a context in which other things then start fitting together: you realize, for example, that Sir Walter Scott was in the crowd at Burkeís hanging, or that Robert Peel was Home Secretary at the time and founded the Metropolitan Police later the same year, and jigsaw piece by jigsaw piece you build up a much fuller picture of the whole era. And then you feel clever, because youíve peeled back the curtain and seen how the ropes and pulleys work.

Richard: What characteristics do you try to bring across for Burke and Hare?

Will: One of the things that struck me early on was that these were not what we think of now as typical serial killers. They werenít driven to murder by passion or perversion, they werenít loners or fanatics Ė this was a commercial operation, and their customers were the rising stars of Edinburghís medical-scientific establishment. Like all the best crime stories, itís about where and how the underworld and the over world meet, and the lies everyone involved tell themselves so they can live with what theyíre doing. I play that out in peopleís facial expressions and stuff as the story goes along, but thatís the easy part. Whatís more difficult is the technical challenge of recreating late-Georgian Edinburgh itself.

This is as much a work of scholarship as it is entertainment, and while Martin Conaghanís done a standup job with the script, marshalling all the facts together and making a coherent narrative out of them, thatís just the beginning: the visual side of it has to be just as accurate. So Iím waist deep in research material Ė maps, portraits, street scenes, architectural drawings, fashion illustrations, photos of antique fireplaces Ė literally everything Iím drawing is based on the maximum amount of research I can do for it. Itís the thing you can do in a comic that you canít do in a prose history, or even on a walking tour: putting the physical environment together. Itís a painstaking process, but if Iíve done my job properly, youíll almost be able to smell the 19th Century every time you turn the page.

Richard: Would you like to draw more comics along this line?

Will: Absolutely. Itís hard work getting all the details right, but itís worth it to end up with something you can be proud of. Although maybe not straight away: the research is pretty labour-intensive. Iíve sort of half-promised myself that the next thing I do will be a complete flight of fancy, all brush, lots of solid black and, I dunno, two panels a page? One? Would that even be a comic? Maybe Iíll just cut some stencils and go out spray painting. Seriously though, I know Insomnia have high hopes for B&H, and theyíre lining up other similar material to follow if it does well, so weíll see.

Richard: What is Pickeringís Corner?

Will: My personal blog, named after a bend on the B754. It doesn't really have a guiding theme, it's just a place to express stuff I'm thinking about, whether that's art, politics, culture or just what's going on in my life. Sometimes I do more with it, sometimes less - it depends what else I've got on. I think there are about five people who ever read it, but it's an outlet of sorts.

Richard: Where would you like to see your career go next?

Will: If Iíve learned anything, itís that the unexpected always happens, and you canít plan meaningfully beyond step one. Iíve got a couple of vanity projects I can be getting on with if nothing else shows up straight away, but Iím basically open to offers.

Richard: Who has supported you the most in being an artist?

Will: Customers, definitely. The encouragement of friends is lovely, but at the end of the day everybody lives by selling something.

Richard: Which artists have influenced you?

Will: It's hard for me to distinguish between artists I just like and ones who've actually had an impact on my style. In terms of anatomy and composition, there's a direct line of descent from the Italian Renaissance down through Rembrandt, Hogarth, David Wilkie et al to the great modern dynamic realists like Neal Adams and JG Jones, but how much of that tradition is obvious on the page Iím too close to my own work to judge: I suspect a lot of what Iíve learned from it is about geometry rather than technique per se. What actually comes out of my pencil is a mishmash of tricks Iíve picked up from all over the place - thereís some Steve Dillon in there, some Alan Davis, some Kirby, some Herge, some Durer, some Kojima, some Dudley Watkins and on and on and on - and then thereís the inking style that you see on the finished page, which I quite consciously vary from project to project.

For B&H, I started by trying to evoke the lurid flavour of penny dreadful and the Illustrated London News, and then got deeper and deeper into the fine line work of the contemporary engravings I was looking at as visual reference, so Iíve ended up with something very like a classic 19th century illustration style. Itís not perfect, but itís a great fit for the subject matter and thatís what counts.

Richard: What comics did you read as a child and do you read now?

Will: The sheer range of comics I had access to as a kid is startling to think about now. Black and white anthology titles with a bottomless pit of variations on football, funny animals, out-of-control school kids and World War II; similarly monochrome reprints from Marvel UK; Alan Classí toilet-paper digests of Wally Woodís THUNDER Agents and obscure 50s Ditko horror tales; old copies of Look and Learn in the library featuring Don Lawrenceís Trigan Empire; Asterix, Tintin and Lucky Luke; Oor Wullie and the Broons in the Sunday Post; Look-In; three different mass-market distribution streams for American imports, so that Marvel comics were in some corner shops, DCs in others, and one bizarrely enterprising confectionerís had a local monopoly on stuff like Richie Rich and the Great Gazoo that you never saw anywhere else; and then along came 2000AD, Dr Who Weekly and Warrior... no wonder I got hooked early. Where did it all go wrong?

Right now thereís maybe half a dozen titles Iím following with any kind of interest, and itís costing me upwards of two bob a page to do it. Iím really looking forward to DCís Wednesday Comics, though, which seems like the best idea anyone in the industryís had for a long long time.

Richard: How can someone contact you?

Will: The blog is as good a place as any to say hello, but I'm also on Facebook and Smallzone.

Richard: Any last words of wisdom?

Will: Iím saving them for my epitaph.

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