In writer Lee Robson and artist Bryan Coyle’s “Babble,” the December-releasing original graphic novel from Com.X, protagonist Carrie Hartnoll joins a research team deciphering a mysterious, ancient language that’s believed to be hard-wired into all of humanity’s brains. The language is called Babel, and decoding it may lead to apocalyptic results — not unlike the Bible story it’s named after.
During their time collaborating on “Babble,” there were times when Robson and Coyle thought their thriller-horror comic was fated for an equally scary end, with the two facing their fair share of misfortune including their original publisher folding, dissolving relationships and medical problems. The UK-based duo spoke with CBR News about the book’s rocky road to publication, the beginning of their collaboration together and how it feels to finally be at the finish line.
After Robson and Coyle were assigned to work together in the pages of small press UK anthology “FutureQuake,” the writer decided he didn’t want their collaboration to end. “We stayed in contact and Bryan was good enough to step in to do the art for a strip I’d written for Accent UK’s ‘Robots’ anthology [and] we got back together for two more collections,” Robson told CBR. “I’d been kicking around the idea of expanding ‘Babble’ into a long-form project for a while, and the more I saw of Bryan’s art, the more I realized he was the perfect artist for this. I asked him to read the script for the first chapter and he agreed to come on and help me develop the pitch.”
One of the major pieces of any story is its main protagonist, and though “Babble” deals with a situation affecting the entire world, it still needed a focal point. Enter Carrie Hartnoll: “Carrie is a twenty-something year old who’s pretty much hit a dead-end in her own life,” Robson continued. “As the story opens, she’s stuck in a job she hates and relationship she’s fed up with; she’s realizing her life hasn’t gone the way she wanted it to and can’t see a way to put it back on track, but, by pure chance, she’s offered a new job as a research assistant in America and sees the opportunity to start over. But, of course, things don’t go according to plan and Carrie gradually uncovers a lot of secrets about the language and her colleagues.
“When we began to develop the pitch for the long form version, both Bryan and I came to it with the view that we weren’t going to make Carrie a generic comic heroine, with a huge chest and a tiny waist,” Robson continued. “We knew we needed to keep Carrie — and the rest of the cast — grounded in reality for the story to work and the way to do that was make her as close to a real person as we could (it was also part of the reason why we went against conventional wisdom of using flashbacks and cutaways to flesh out the history of the language). So, out went the gravity defying breasts and “porn poses” and in came the changing hairstyles and every day clothes.”
“As I said, the story started life as a short for an anthology and Carrie was created specifically for that, but when I started writing, it became clear that this was her story and always had been — which is an awful writing cliche, I know, but I really couldn’t see ‘Babble’ with anyone but her in the lead role — especially after Bryan visualized her so brilliantly.”
While zombie movies and John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” helped influence the intensity of their thriller, Robson also credits some of the American comics he was reading at the time for additional inspiration. He was sparked to play with the form of “Babble” by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s decompressed “Daredevil” pages and the cinematic scope of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s “Ultimates,” but the urgency to tell “Babble” came from a more personal place.
“I started writing ‘Babble’ after a lot of crap just dropped in my lap. I lost my old day job, had a break up and then lost a good friend. I felt lost for quite a while. So, I did what I usually do with things like that and started to write,” he said. “I ended up pouring a lot of myself into Carrie, and it became a really intensely personal project.”
“Babble” marks Coyle’s first long-form comics project, an ambitious debut to be sure, but one the artist was eager to take on. “This sounded pretty exciting in itself for someone with my disastrous attention span,” said Coyle. “The story was also really interesting to me, as I’d read the original short and it felt very like something Nigel Kneale would dream up for Quatermass; this invasion by something shapeless and ephemeral that’s almost just an idea. It was really appealing because Lee wasn’t looking to build a franchise about a fictional world. He was looking to tell a story about a single character.
“I also liked his inadvertent optimism that I could turn in pages where all the characters looked different, had a variety of facial expressions and individual body language. I was basically winging it as an artist and didn’t have a clue why he thought I could do any of that, but it sounded like a challenge to be trying to put all this stuff in there and I hope it came across in the work,” Coyle added with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor.
As frightening as the world of “Babble” is, writing the potential end of the world wasn’t the scariest aspect of the project for Robson. That honor goes instead to the challenge in creating a believable relationship between Carrie and her ex. “Trying to write that and give it some sense of realism was actually a pretty terrifying prospect,” the writer said. “When I started planning the story out, I knew I wanted it to be in there, because the relationships between the central characters were going to be the heart of the story, and how they changed over the course of those pages would come from what happens between Carrie and her ex, but I’d never really attempted anything like it before. I wasn’t 100% sure I could do it (I’m still not!), but I knew I had to give it a go. I’ll admit, though, I had doubts about whether it would actually mesh with the overall story I had in mind; I mean, attaching kitchen sink drama to a story featuring religious mythology was a gamble, and one I was never sure was actually going to work.”
Another bit of uncertainty involved in the project was whether or not “Babble” was ever going to see print. Originally set to be published by the now-defunct Insomnia three years ago, when the publisher folded “Babble’s” prospects looked bleak. “We signed with Insomnia way back in 2009, after a long search for a publisher. They were a small press outfit with big aims and, at the time, it looked as if we’d lucked out,” Robson said. “Work started on the book shortly after the contracts were signed, and for a year, we started to lick the thing into shape.
“Even though there was some damage control from the company, as well as the editors who resigned, our faith in ever seeing ‘Babble’ come to fruition had taken a serious knock,” Robson continued, explaining how the publisher’s issues began to come into focus. “Insomnia had an internal restructure, new people were brought in and things picked up again for a short time, but we could see the writing on the wall and — I’ll be honest here — we were wondering what it would take for us to get out of our contracts and take a chance on shopping the book around to new publishers.”â€¨
After months of mounting frustration, the pair began investigating legal options to get the rights to their book back from the struggling publisher. “Even though ‘Babble’ was an increasingly personal story for me, I was prepared to walk away from the whole thing and move onto something else during that time, but Bryan was adamant we weather the storm and see what happened,” Robson said. After legal action was taken by a creator over another book tied up at Insomnia, Robson and Coyle followed suit, got “Babble” released from its contract and began the process of looking for a new home.
“[They] basically took a shot in the dark submitting to Com.X after Insomnia folded,” Com.X Publisher Benjamin Shahrabani told CBR News. “They were pretty sure we would say no — I’m not sure why they would say that, but that’s what they said to us — but, well, we didn’t. Lee and Bryan were already a bit down the road on this, but it wasn’t close to being finished. What was there we liked a lot. We especially liked the idea of their layered story with a female protagonist, so it was an easy decision to say yes.”
“When Com.X agreed to sign ‘Babble,’ it felt, to me, like a natural fit, like we’d always been with these guys and couldn’t imagine being with any other publisher,” Robson said of his new publisher. “Com.X have been incredibly patient with us and — more importantly for me — they never got in the way of us telling the story we want to tell, the way we want to tell it. But now we’ve actually finished the book and, it’s so close to a physical release — well, I’m full of fear, excitement and surprise. But mostly fear.”
Though Robson and Coyle found a new home for “Babble,” the setbacks weren’t quite over. While illustrating the comic,Coyle developed repetitive strain injury, a muscle and nerve syndrome, which further delayed the book’s completion.
“The RSI put a crimp in my output, but Ben and Eddie were very understanding and patient because they had a good deal of faith in the book. So while annoying, RSI didn’t stop me finishing the book,” Coyle said. “Eventually, it became just another bump in the road of folding publishing houses, unemployment drama, breakups and now health issues.
“It’s just life doing what it does. You could throw your hands up at some point and say it’s the universe telling you to stop doing something or other, but it’s really better to think of it as the universe telling you that nothing is achieved without a little bit of perseverance and life is generally full of distractions. It’s been eventful, but it’s fantastic to finally see the book come out.”
Robson shares his partner’s enthusiasm at seeing the end of “Babble’s” long road to publication, and the writer just can’t say enough about how pleased he is at the final result of his and Coyle’s years-long collaboration. “He brought a lot to the table, not just in terms of art, but also in his approach and his views on the story itself,” Robson said. “Seeing his art come in and seeing the way he injected something really unique into each page to bring the characters to life, it just took my breath away. Without wanting to give too much away, seeing those final two pages just gave me chills. I had a clear idea in my head of how that scene would look and Bryan just nailed it exactly.”
“Babble” will be released by Com.X in December.