Employment in the UK is on the rise according to the latest tally from the Office of National Statistics, but in these tentative times Will Volley tells us about the influences of his graphic novel, The Opportunity.
Steff Humm: The Opportunity shows us the risks of commission-based jobs run on false optimism. What do you think its ultimate message is, in terms of employment prospects today?
WV: I think there has always been a lack of employment opportunities in society for some, and better opportunities for others, and it will probably always be the case. I’m not sure if the job market today is any different to the 1980s/90s/00s, I wouldn’t know how to measure it to be honest.
The characters in the story are all young entrepreneurs that believe that jobs (in general) are scarce, largely unfulfilling, and temporary, so they want to create their own income and are being encouraged to do so by management. Unfortunately for them, office politics prevents them from moving forward and we see the devastating effect this has on certain individuals.
The get-rich-quick culture that these companies promotes intrigues me, I’m not sure if it’s a symptom of the lack of jobs or just a natural desire. I do know that these companies thrive in times of austerity, and I think the lengths these entrepreneurs will take to get on the property ladder reflects a dysfunctional aspect of the economy in the UK.
Why work all your life in a dead end job when you can take advantage of the housing shortage, become a buy-to-let landlord and live off the rental income? Politicians do it, banks promote it, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
SH: What drew you to this subject matter? Does the story have any roots in your personal experience?
WV: Yes, I worked for one of these sales companies for a few weeks after I graduated from university. I was flat broke, and it was the only work I could get. I loved the people I worked with but the whole set up felt very much like a cult. After I left, I couldn’t stop thinking about my experience because I had so many unanswered questions.
Out of curiosity I started doing some research, I interviewed ex-managers, read ex-employees’ experiences online, and the more I learned the more intrigued I became.
I felt the subject matter was perfect material for a contemporary drama, and the imagery of a salesman running around a residential neighbourhood at night appealed to me greatly. So I decided to create a graphic novel.
SH: Your protagonist Colin keeps himself and his team going with the promise of future financial comfort, but his capitalist ideals don’t seem like they would make him happy in the end. How would you describe his personal philosophy, and how is that affected by his constant denial?
WV: I think he is someone that is hard wired to be a provider (an alpha male type) he wants to be self sufficient and prosperous and that’s what would make him happy. The problem is that he has put all his eggs in one basket; he won’t accept anything but the perfect future he has envisaged for himself, which leaves him vulnerable to fate and exploitation. The story, like all tragedies, is a lesson in humility, the message is; if you can’t be humble and accept your limitations, you’ll likely pay a hefty price. For Colin, it’s his mental and physical health.
SH: Despite all that happens, Colin doesn’t seem to have learned much by the end of his arc. Is there any hope for him? What about the rest of his team?
WV: I think by the end of the story Colin understands that he needs to move on and accept defeat, but as we see in the final panel, there is a suggestion that he will likely return some day to the company. It’s very common for salesmen that have worked in these multi-level marketing companies for years and years (then get burned out) to return and give it one last bash. It’s an addiction, like a gambler; the surge of dopamine occurs during the chase, the anticipation of success. There’s no more seductive a word than maybe. The story does, therefore, go full circle.
Even the least conspicuous of them has their own motivation and works against the protagonist on their own terms rather than for plot reasons. Drama, as I understand is all about action. Action in drama is defined by a character trying to get something, facing obstacles, and then trying to find a way around it.
SH: How do you go about developing your characters?
WV: The question I ask of every character is; what do they want? Why do they want it now? What happens if they don’t get it?
Everything that each character does should in some way affect the central character’s attempts to get what he/she wants, but ultimately in a tragedy the central character sows the seeds to his/her downfall, it’s a direct/indirect consequence of his/her character flaws.
This is excessive pride and overconfidence in Colin’s case. The central theme for all the characters in this story is that they are trapped. The manager wants to leave the company but is being held back by the regional manager. Colin wants to get promoted but is being held back by the manager, the rest of the team want to better their circumstances but are being held back by office politics. I wanted to capture this restlessness that I sensed when I worked at this type of sales company.
SH: Women get screwed around a lot throughout the story. What is your general approach to gender themes when you are creating?
WV: I try not to define characters by their race, gender, height etc. I look at people as individuals rather than collectively; what are their desires? What is their predicament? That’s more interesting to me than the colour of their skin or what gender they happen to be.
I think Colin gets screwed pretty badly. His treatment of women (or people in general) is more a reflection of his self-centred nature rather than having anything to do with misogyny.
SH: How would you define your art style? Who are your greatest influences?
WV: I love naturalism, both in painting and writing so that was the approach for this book, it felt appropriate to the type of story I was telling where it’s dealing with very mundane, street level subjects, and therefore I wanted the world to appear recognisable and not too stylised.
I was influenced by the exaggerated contour lines of Jack Kirby, but in general, artist David Mazzucchelli is definitely my biggest influence.
SH: You create constant tension with atmospheric mystery. Were you ever tempted to take the story in a different direction? Did you know where you were going or did the characters lead you there?
WV: It sounds pretentious and clichéd to say, but I believe writing is an act of discovery. There’s no point in starting a story if you already have all the answers, and this book was very much a kind of self-therapy for me where I was expressing my own failed aspirations, and stubborn nature through the protagonist. That being said, I wanted to stick to the plot structure of a tragedy as outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics. If I didn’t, I think I would still be writing the book!
I wrote the script like a screenplay, and then would make sketches loosely based around the central theme, trying to establish a certain mood and sometimes I would write with pictures. In fact, the whole plot was basically constructed around one of my doodles I drew one night at five in the morning.
I drew a man standing, looking at a lit window in a block of flats in the rain. I didn’t know what it meant, but it felt significant. Then I drew him walking into the building, he goes into a bedroom, slowly turns and sees an old face screaming back at him. A bit like a scene from a horror film. Then it started to make sense: the sequence is a hallucination, it’s the protagonist projecting his fear of getting old, he can’t bear to look at himself because it reminds him of the passing of time, that he has failed, and all his efforts have been in vain.
I think it was inspired by a conversation I had with an ex-manager that told me that when he was working in the company, lying to people, he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror because he didn’t like who he had become.
SH: What does the near-constant rain symbolise to you?
WV: It’s a good question because I’m very moved by the rain. I find it very evocative and I guess so do lots of other writers and film makers. I tend to pay closer attention when there is a scene that involves rain in a book or film.
I think deep down it probably has something to do with the idea of god (or fate) making his presence known, like a warning to the protagonist that reality is crashing in on him, the truth is soon going to be revealed, which adds suspense.