Hamish Steele on retelling myths

Pantheon creator Hamish Steele talks to us about writing comedy and having the coolest grandmother in the world. For more on his work, read our review of Pantheon.

Gareth Evans: You’ve used Kickstarter for a couple of graphic novels now. How do you feel about the platform? And what made you think of crowdfunding as a means of funding?

Hamish Steele: The reason I used crowdfunding to produce comics is simply to get them made. When I first approached comic publishers wanting to make something with them, they all said they needed to see something I’d made first. And I always find it tricky making something small. All my ideas balloon into multi-part graphic novels soon enough. Kickstarter works. You never end the process with any money, there’s ALWAYS hidden costs and fees to producing these things. But it’s the best way I’ve found to crowdfund.

GE: What it is about comics that appeals to you as a medium?

HS: Comic books, even when working with Nobrow, has been the most creatively free medium I’ve worked in. By day I’m an animation director and it’s often frustrating having to vet your ideas past dozens of producers who only care about money. With comic books and especially with my own webcomics and self published things, my vision makes it to the audiences without many excuses. And I like that. You can also tell any kind of story and not have to really worry about budget.

GE: You say in your afterword to Pantheon that you set out to make a faithful re-telling of the Egyptian creation myths. What led you to create this specific book, and to choose Egyptian myth over any other?

HS: I was already reading Egyptian myths for a completely separate comic project. Originally, I was setting a book in a world where the Egyptian faith had ended up being a major world religion in the present day. However, I found my research far more interesting then the project. I was researching Egyptian mythology for about 5 years before I ended up putting a short comic adaptation of the “Osiris gets put in a box” scene on Tumblr which blew up more than my other stuff. I wanted to finish that comic but ended up realising I wanted to tell the whole story and here we are.

GE: Mythological re-tellings never seem to go out of style, but the tone of Pantheon, and your choices when depicting certain events, is quite modern and progressive (I’m thinking, for example, of your illustration of Ra’s observation that “humans don’t represent anything” on page 189). How do you think this ancient narrative is relevant to readers today? What creative choices did you make to cater to those readers?

HS: The main thing I’ve added to the mythology are some of my own sensibilities. I tried to find the elements of the Egyptian faith that related to myself and concepts I believed in. I wouldn’t want to put out a book that I disagreed with. I try and be clear that this is a faithful adaptation of the myths, but it’ll always be filtered through my vision.

A similar thing happened when trying to adapt the whole Horus/Set sex scene. I’m gay and LGBT representation is very, very important to me. So my handling of that scene had to be very careful. I go to great lengths in that scene to show that sex between men isn’t wrong, that Horus doesn’t regret the actual act – but I still try to make it funny! And the worst thing to do would be to erase the scene from the story.

GE: Your humour doesn’t miss a beat and appears in loads of different styles that make use of the language of comics. How do you approach writing comedy? How does the explicit nature of the plot fit into that approach?

HS: Thank you! That’s good to hear. I always get scared I’ve gone too far. I’ve been working in children’s animation and all-ages comics for so long, that Pantheon was a bit of a venting process. I wanted it to have the feeling of something like the Thick of It where high brow and low brow comedy sits together to compliment each other. I feel Pantheon feels smart while having poo and willy jokes. My approach to writing comedy isn’t something I’ve thought about a lot. I genuinely laugh a lot when rereading Pantheon. I think the key is to not try and make other people laugh and that its okay to find yourself funny. Some people are embarrassed to.

There’s just something about the Gods when reading their mythology that makes me think they’d speak this way. They act like total jocks, it feels silly to represent them as these dour, serious, awe-inspiring deities. They’re all just dicks to each other.

GE: And speaking of explicit – I’m curious to know what responses to that aspect of the book have been like?

HS: Most people have been fine with it! When I took it to Nobrow, I assumed a lot of it would have to be censored but they didn’t ask for a single change.I did send my grandmother a copy with a certain page sellotaped shut. After reading the book, she sent me an email with the subject: “Hamish, I am appalled” that continued in the email as “that you would think anything in this book is something I haven’t seen before.”

GE: In utilising the potential for comedy through comics you specifically reference the medium in the getting-together of Horus and Hathor. What is it about graphic storytelling that best serves the Pantheon story?

HS: I’m glad you mention that joke – I always wondered if people would get it! Comics and graphic novels have always appealed to me because you can do it all yourself. Pantheon‘s brand of comedy is quite a hard sell unless people can see it? It’d never have been published by Nobrow if I hadn’t done the whole thing myself first.

GE: You take this narrative and comedy style over into your webcomic DeadEndia. Which part of that story did you conceive of first?

HS: For DeadEndia, it was the main characters Barney and Norma. I’ve had them pop up in many stories and settings before.

Originally they were the heroes of a comic called Merlin 2000, in which Merlin is brought back to life and goes on a killing spree. Then they were in a time-travelling graphic novel I developed called Killing Time (the basis of which form the last two issues of the first “season” of DeadEndia) and then they were in my first animated short. They can really work anywhere, which is the sign of both a good character but also potentially a weak one. I like to think they’re good!

GE: What sort of reception has your indie work received?

HS: Really positive! Of course the one percent of negative haunts me. But it’s good to be haunted. Especially for a comic about ghosts! It’s just important to remember you’ll never please everyone so trying to please your audience is trickier and less attainable then just trying to please yourself.

GE: What will you be working on next?

HS: As an animation director I’m the busiest I’ve ever been but it’s all pretty secret. In the book world, Nobrow’s colour reprint of Pantheon comes out in April and that’s intended to be a series with Norse and Greek themed sequels.

For more detail on Pantheon don’t forget to check out our review.

Image from Nobrow Press

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