The inspiration for the strip I submitted for inclusion in the Dawns comic came from my trusty iPod. I had initially decided to kill three birds with one stone by completing my college summer brief ready for the start of term, including it in this publication and also entering it for the Observer/Comica Graphic Short Story prize. However, with deadlines looming and not wanting to rush this story I needed to come up with something quickly. As it turned out, the deadlines were pushed back because of our decisions as to the final production process, this strip took far longer to complete than I ever guessed (although given that it is the first strip I have ever actually completed that is not too surprising) and I ended up using it as my Observer/Comica entry and trying to blag it as my summer brief. So I killed two birds and slightly wounded another.
Anyhow, back to the light-bulb moment. I was alone at my sister’s house, mural painting and going slowly mad in a kind of parody of ‘The Shining’. Racking my brains for ideas (i.e. smoking like a chimney) and listening to Johnny Marr’s brilliant contribution to The Cribs’ latest album on my iPod, I began to think of his contribution to ‘The Most Important Band of the Last Thirty Years’ (i.e. The Smiths). What made The Smiths the most important band of my life was not only Mr Marr’s tunes, but their perfect marriage with Mr Morrissey’s lyrics. I began to wonder if I could tell a story using only images, each of which depicted a line from a different Smiths song and then enigmatically credit Morrissey with the ‘words’. The answer ultimately turned out to be “Yes, and no”.
Four pages with nine panels per page seemed a reasonable length, so I set out listing evocative lyrics. “This man said it’s gruesome that someone so handsome should care” (from ‘This Charming Man’) is poetry of the highest order, but does not describe a scene and does not lend itself easily to illustration. “If a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die” (from ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’) creates an image instantly and lends the story a typically upbeat mood. Several other lines leapt to mind, but finding thirty-six lines from thirty-six different songs required a little thought, especially given that they all had to form some kind of coherent narrative. Luckily, I was borrowing from a genius wordsmith (no pun intended) and after an hour or two I was there. Possibly my personal favourite line, having been highlighted by my friend Rich, is “If you ever need self-validation, just meet me in the alley by the railway station” (from ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’), but this didn’t make the final cut.
The general plot forming in my mind was to feature three main characters. The first is a lonely boy, Morrissey’s avatar if you like, the second a sweet girl and the third her thuggish boyfriend. Girl is dissatisfied with thug, boy fancies girl, boy and girl get together, thug gets angry, it all ends in tears – your average day-to-day romance viewed through northern rain. I began by making some rough pencil sketches to get an idea of what they each would look like and was fairly happy with the results. The next step was to work out which lines related to which character(s) and in what order to depict the events. I very crudely drew each of the scenes on Post-It notes and laid them out on four sheets of A3 paper. This enabled me to swap and change the running order until I was satisfied that the story made some kind of sense. Now to the bit I always dread – drawing the final artwork…
As the pages were going to be reduced to A5 for the Dawns comic, there seemed little point working any bigger than A4, plus I needed to get this finished quickly. I decided on using a 0.1mm graphic pen with cross-hatching and shading and keeping the strip in black and white. I have never attempted to tell a serious story, dealing mostly with comedy, and have never attempted to produce a realistic-looking strip with shading and cross-hatching. Sensible move Aiden… Still – good to push boundaries and try something new, otherwise these things will remain ideas in my head and I’ll never learn what I can and cannot do. Choosing some nice white card that absorbed the ink a little (as I always smudge), I printed four pages of three panel by three panel grids and set to work, sketching each scene in blue pencil ready for the inking stage.
Inking appears to always take three times longer than I ever imagine it will. A whole week blurred into one as I completed panel after panel. It was always an effort to begin the next, but always a pleasure once I had started. A little Tipp-Ex was needed, but not as much as I had anticipated, and I was mostly satisfied with the results – pleasantly surprised in some cases. After many nights of intense labour, the pages were scanned and I took them into college to be cleaned up with Photoshop. Finished! Well, almost…
As my friend Jon observed, the problem with getting advice from someone who knows what he is talking about is that you end up increasing your workload. Dan showed me how to make all the blacks blacker and whites whiter and then the subject of colour appeared as if from nowhere. I was shown how I could in fact make the lines any colour I wanted very easily, maybe even put a background colour in. Now – all The Smiths record sleeves show images rendered in duo-tone, using either one or two colours, plus an extra shade for the lettering. I had toyed with the idea of shading each panel in the same colours as the sleeve of the record it appeared on, lending an extra clue to the source of the image. Being essentially lazy, I had dismissed this as something nice to do one day maybe and here I was being shown how to do it. One more night’s work was now required, and it was a whole day and night as it turned out. I downloaded images of all the sleeves so I could ‘eye-drop’ the correct tones. Colour brought a whole new set of issues – I had to check which albums and singles each track appeared on and then select appropriately to ensure the overall look and balance of each page was not spoiled by two panels of the similar colour next to each other or too many instances of the same tones. Cue an Excel spreadsheet and much gnashing of teeth. I got there in the end though, despite being a Photoshop novice and things not working quite the way I intended.
Looking at the coloured pages, the thought bubbles that appear in several panels appeared to merge into the scene. Thought bubbles are not usually coloured, so time to add a layer behind the lines and in front of the backgrounds and white them out. Now they looked too bright and detracted from the coloured backgrounds, so I reduced the opacity of the white layer and that improved things. I then had the bright idea of doing the same for the main characters and key objects in each panel, but it was about 5am and I had to submit the finished art at 10am that day, so it was time to end the feature-creep and make a mental note that this was a good idea for the next time, along with using Illustrator to create panel borders in the same shade as the lettering on the appropriate sleeve…
The whole thing was a great learning process for me with many firsts. I am on the one hand very satisfied with the achievement and on the other I can see glaring faults. I don’t know if it works or not – maybe someone with a similar Smiths obsession would appreciate it. People seem to kind of like it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained I say – I moved out of my comfort zone and pushed personal boundaries. Why would I expect perfection first time out? It will be interesting to look back on this, maybe even have another go when some time has passed. It is now presented for your entertainment (or something) with a full description of what the hell is going on in each panel. Click on the image to see the full-size version.
So – if you are confused by some of the references or plot (or are just plain not familiar with The Smiths), here is a panel-by-panel breakdown of the story. Each description shows the lyric, the song it is taken from and the album or single on which it featured (and therefore the colour scheme). There then follows a brief outline of the key features of the panel, the choices made and how it fits into the story. Or not. Here we go:
PANEL 1: “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Smiths (album) – Fairly self-explanatory. No pretty girls in the picture, but there is a grave. And the flowers are meant to be gladioli (could they be anything else?).
PANEL 2: “Punctured bicycle, on a hillside desolate”, This Charming Man, This Charming Man (single) – Sets the scene. The boy is walking into town and it is starting to rain. I thought an old-fashioned shopper with wicker basket would be more in keeping with Morrissey’s thoughts than a mountain bike with disc brakes and suspension.
PANEL 3: “The rain falls hard on a humdrum town, this town has dragged you down”, William, It Was Really Nothing, William It Was Really Nothing (single) – Well, the rain is falling harder than in the last panel and the town the boy is approaching looks fairly humdrum. He is having black thoughts. That’s because he’s lonely. His hair is blowing in the opposite direction to the rain though, but we’ll overlook that eh?
PANEL 4: “In the room downstairs, he sat and stared”, Girl Afraid, Hatful Of Hollow (album) – The girl is looking a bit nervous at least and the thug is staring. The stairs in the background give the location away. They are going out with each other, but she isn’t certain this is a good idea.
PANEL 5: “Let me get my hands on your mammary glands”, Handsome Devil, Hand In Glove (single) – Typical male, one track mind. My sister thought it looked more like he wanted to strangle her though. I should have been more explicit.
PANEL 6: “It took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead to really, really open her eyes”, What She Said, Meat Is Murder (album) – She’s really having second thoughts now. The Tranmere Rovers crest and ‘TRFC’ tattooed illegibly on the thug’s arm are the clues here. The girl is smoking, because she’s “hoping for an early death”, another line from the same song.
PANEL 7: “And you leave on your own and you go home and you cry and you want to die”, How Soon Is Now?, How Soon Is Now? (single) – The promise of a “club if you’d like to go – you could meet somebody who really loves you” has not been fulfilled and the boy leaves in tears as he witnesses his fellow clubbers going home in pairs. Not a lot of laughs in this story are there? This track features the mother of all riffs though…
PANEL 8: “Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me”, Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me (single) – Alarm clock goes off and the dream is shattered for the poor boy, “no hope, no harm – just another false alarm”. The dream that is, the alarm clock is genuine.
PANEL 9: “Writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg”, Ask, Ask (single) – I thought in this day and age, rather than having a pen-pal, the boy would be harassing girls from around the globe using MSN or Facebook or some such. Far more convenient than pen and paper. The girl’s buck teeth are maybe not too obvious and I toyed with the idea of putting the flag of Luxembourg on her wall, or making the thought bubble Luxembourg-shaped. Don’t try and claim you’d have got it if only I’d included either of those clues though…
PANEL 10: “A crack on the head is what you get for not asking”, Barbarism Begins At Home, Meat Is Murder (album) – The girl returns home to her parents having been out all night and immediately gets a smack from her father. I quite liked the irony of the ‘Welcome’ mat. I wanted to use the colours from the Barbarism Begins At Home single as I have for every other A-side, but the colours were too similar to those of the next panel. It was only released as a promo in the UK though, so I let myself off.
PANEL 11: “No, mamma, let me go”, Shakespeare’s Sister, Shakespeare’s Sister (single) – The girl has had enough of this parental abuse and packed her bags, but her mother is standing between her and the door. She is meant to be pleading. Father has had enough and is off to the kitchen with his paper.
PANEL 12: “I booked myself in at the YWCA”, Half A Person, Shoplifters Of The World Unite (single) – Fairly self-explanatory. The girl needs somewhere to stay after all.
PANEL 13: “Well I wonder, do you see me when we pass?”, Well I Wonder, Meat Is Murder (album) – The boy sees the girl for the first time and immediately takes note. But does she even notice him as she is so wrapped up in her own thoughts?
PANEL 14: “I’d leap in front of a flying bullet for you”, What Difference Does It Make?, What Difference Does It Make? (single) – The boy immediately has heroic thoughts and is off in fantasy land. However, things could be looking up because she appears to have noticed him after all and there is the trace of a smile on her lips.
PANEL 15: “Sweetness, I was only joking when I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head”, Bigmouth Strikes Again, Bigmouth Strikes Again (single) – The thug has made an inappropriate comment in the heat of an argument and tries to pass it off as a joke. The girl doesn’t see it that way and has finally had enough. It’s over between them.
PANEL 16: “I was minding my business, lifting some lead off the roof of the Holy Name church”, Vicar In A Tutu, The Queen Is Dead (album) – The boy goes in search of Divine help and spots some youths doing just this. A tenuous link perhaps as the lyric doesn’t directly relate to the plot.
PANEL 17: “Please, please, please let me get what I want”, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want, Hatful of Hollow (album) – The boy gets on his knees and prays that just this once things might go his way, “Lord knows, it would be the first time”. The altar is off to the right of the stairs, rather than central like every other altar in the world.
PANEL 18: “Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ”, Panic, Panic (single) – The radio blares out music that “says nothing to me about my life” thinks the boy and comes to the logical conclusion that the best thing for everyone would be to string Chris Moyles up by his neck until dead. Hard to disagree. He is writing a letter declaring his undying love for the girl while harbouring these murderous thoughts.
PANEL 19: “I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now”, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now (single) – The girl is unhappy in her employment (in a pharmacy, although this is hardly obvious) and the boss is having a go at her because the boy has asked him to pass on his romantic missive. The boy looks on sheepishly from outside the shop.
PANEL 20: “The note I wrote, as she read, she said ‘Has the Perrier gone straight to my head?’”, I Won’t Share You, Strangeways Here We Come (album) – The girl reads the letter during her lunch hour and is shocked. She should be clutching her head to make the reference clearer.
PANEL 21: “A heartless hand on my shoulder, a push and it’s over”, Shoplifters Of The World Unite, Shoplifters Of The World Unite (single) – The thug has come to confront the girl in the one place he knows where to find her. While there, he has decided to help himself to some prescription drugs but has been apprehended by the law. The police grab him, he threatens the girl, her boss has another go at her and she asks how it can be her fault? Things are coming to a head…
PANEL 22: “Sheila take a, Sheila take a bow”, Sheila Take A Bow, Sheila Take A Bow (single) – The girl has had enough and quits her job, bowing to her irate ex-employer as she leaves (more polite than “booting the grime of this world in the crotch, dear” after all) to find “the one that you love and who loves you”.
PANEL 23: “A dreaded sunny day, so I’ll meet you at the cemetry gates”, Cemetry Gates, The Queen Is Dead (album) – Spell-check and the Oxford English Dictionary both say ‘cemetery’, but I’m not going to correct Morrissey’s spelling for their benefit. There’s no sun in the picture though, but this is one of the more obvious references so shame on you if you didn’t get it. She might be a bit late as he’s checking his watch. More likely he is half an hour early.
PANEL 24: “You took me behind a disused railway line and said ‘I know a place where we can go, where we are not known’”, These Things Take Time, What Difference Does It Make? (single) – The girl wastes no time in dragging him off. The railway line looks fairly overgrown and disused, although the Manchester Piccadilly to Euston line is probably in a similar condition.
PANEL 25: “Under the iron bridge we kissed”, Still Ill, The Smiths (album) – Yep, there they are playing tonsil tennis under a bridge. The rivets make it a bit ferrous-looking. We can assume they “ended up with sore lips”.
PANEL 26: “Reel around the fountain”, Reel Around The Fountain, Hatful Of Hollow (album) – Not a care in the world as they play together in the park. It can’t last – this is Morrissey after all. I’m quite pleased with the way the water-feature has been rendered.
PANEL 27: “Stretch out and wait, let your puny body lie down”, Stretch Out And Wait, The World Won’t Listen (album) – The girl stretches out in the boy’s bed, the moment he’s been waiting for. He’s busy pondering “what’s at the back of your mind?” though. He will later go on to ponder “will the world end in the daytime?”, “will the world end in the night-time?” and “is there any point ever having children?”. He should get out more.
PANEL 28: “Poor woman, strangled in her very own bed as she read”, Sweet And Tender Hooligan, Louder Than Bombs (album) – Can I just say at this point that ‘Louder Than Bombs’ is a fantastic album title? This is meant to distract you from the weakest part of the narrative. You have to assume here that the thug is still looking for the girl and getting more and more desperate. As he does not know where she is currently residing, his only link to her is her parents and so he breaks into their house. Her mother doesn’t know where she is either, but he doesn’t believe her so he strangles her. If you look carefully, you can see her book falling to the floor. Her husband, sleeping in a separate bedroom can hear some kind of commotion, but it is his turn next as he is going to have “an accident with a three bar fire”, the one we can see by his bed.
PANEL 29: “On cold leather seats, well it suddenly struck me – I just might die with a smile on my face after all”, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore (single) – The girl picks the boy up for a night out and he continues with his morbid thoughts.
PANEL 30: “And if they don’t believe us now, will they ever believe us?”, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (single) – As they walk down the street together, their contemporaries cannot fathom their relationship and so dismiss and ridicule it.
PANEL 31: “And someone falls in love and someone’s beaten up”, Rusholme Ruffians, Meat Is Murder (album) – At “the last night of the fair”, the thug finally catches up with the couple and kicks seven shades out of the boy. The girl pleads with him to stop. The more astute among you will have noticed “the grease in the hair of the speedway operator”. The police have spotted this violent act and are ready to move in.
PANEL 32: “The good people stare”, Hand In Glove, Hand In Glove (single) – As the boy lies beaten on the ground, the girl attends to him and the police drag the thug away, once and for all we hope – his crimes are mounting after all. This isn’t the most obvious panel lyric-wise and I’m not entirely happy with it. Maybe I should have coloured it to match the ultra-rare negative sleeve, but this might have clashed with the following panel, both appearing very dark. An after-thought that would be more like a clumsy patch.
PANEL 33: “Friday night in out-patients”, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before (import single) – If you’ve only heard Mark Ronson and Daniel Merriweather’s unforgiveable butchery of this late classic, stop instantly and hear it again as originally intended. The boy goes to hospital to get patched up since “the pain was enough to make a shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass-murder”. Ouch.
PANEL 34: “If a double-decker bus crashes into us”, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, The Queen Is Dead (album) – The line that kicked this whole cheery episode off. If you didn’t get this one then shame on you.
PANEL 35: “Let me whisper my last goodbyes, I know it’s serious”, Girlfriend In A Coma, Girlfriend In A Coma (single) – Another panel that needs little explanation. She isn’t going to recover and the boy is heartbroken.
PANEL 36: “Sing me to sleep”, Asleep, The World Won’t Listen (album) – The only girl who ever loved him gone, the boy decides to end it all. The empty bottles of alcohol and pills sit on the bedside table, their contents consumed as he drifts away imagining her voice… Romeo and Juliet as played out in Whalley Range.
So there you have it – I hope it now makes some kind of sense. But how did you fare?
0-10 – Nowhere Fast – that’s not very good. Go out and buy ‘The Sound Of The Smiths’ (the double CD version) and educate yourself.
11-20 – I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish – you obviously have a passing knowledge of The Smiths. Purchase the entire back catalogue now.
21-30 – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby – not bad at all, but make sure you plug any holes in your vinyl collection and find those rare imports.
31-36 – Paint A Vulgar Picture – you know more about The Smiths than I do and the only reason you didn’t get full marks was down to my poor artwork. Sell me your ultra-rare Hand In Glove 7” with the negative sleeve.
Right – that’s it, time to close this particular chapter. I Know It’s Over. No, really.