Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen is Ready for the UK! An Interview with Helen Mullane

21 Aug

By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

Available on Amazon USA

UK Release Date
August 20, 2020

For our readers who are unfamiliar with your work, could you please introduce yourself?

Sure. Hello! I’m Helen, a comic writer and dog musher from London who now lives in Swedish Lapland. I wrote the folk horror graphic novel Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen. I used to work in the film industry in London and produced the documentary Futureshock! The Story of 2000AD, and worked on the release of a lot of great anime and genre cinema before that.

When handling the releases of many works from Studio Canal and eOne, does film distribution also involve you becoming intimately knowledgeable in the movies you’re helping to promote? What were some of your favourite movies?

You don’t necessarily need to love every film you work on (it helps!) but a good release strategy depends on an intimate understanding of what someone else might love about it. You need to get into the headspace of the film’s potential fans, to understand how and where to reach them.

I worked on so many amazing films at both StudioCanal and EOne. I managed the release of Ponyo and a lot of home entertainment Ghibli releases. But my favourite projects were often the older movies I got to sink my teeth into and make new extras for–I made a pop up box set of Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish language films, a special edition of Quatermass and The Pit with a cover by Ollie Moss and a Hardware special edition with a Kevin O’Neill Futureshock in that I am particularly proud of.

My favourite ‘new release’ campaign was for The Losers because it was through that I got to know Jock and Andy Diggle. Quite apart from the fact that they’re both cool dudes and awesome creators, that relationship eventually led to the dream of The Bloody Queen eventually becoming a reality!

What films (or books) would you say has influenced your narrative style?

I am very influenced by dark or surreal children’s books like Watership Down and Alice in Wonderland, and by comics like Alan Moore‘s run on Swamp Thing and Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s work with Moebius, especially when it gets really weird and dark. Then I think in film I have really absorbed a lot of influence from kitchen sink stuff like Fish Tank, A Taste of Honey and Poor Cow, magical realism from films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Tideland, and the surreal and dark work of creators like Peter Strickland and Satoshi Kon.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD poster.jpg

With Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD, how would you sum up that documentary?

Futureshock is an in-depth but hopefully still accessible ride through the wild story of the rise and rise of 2000AD. It features interviews with key figures like the creator of the mag Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill and Neil Gaiman, legendary comics editor Karen Berger and also people influenced by 2000AD like Alex Garland and Scott Ian. It’s a lot of fun!

Would you say that work helped you decide on which talents to ask to help illustrate your story, Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen?

Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen came together more organically than that, but in a way the documentary was key to it happening. During the filming of Futureshock we went a British road trip to talk to amazing creators like Henry Flint, Andy Diggle, Lee Garbett and Jock.

So I was down the pub enjoying a pint with the artist Dom Reardon. We had an amazingly animated discussion about our mutual love of folk horror and all things wyrd. I told him about this show I wanted to do, a pastoral druidic horror. He loved the idea and suggested that I write it as a comic instead, on the promise that he would then draw it. That’s not the sort of opportunity that comes along every day so of course I jumped at the chance!

Jock jumped on board really early. The rest of the incredible team came together–Matthew Dow Smith lending his wonderful layout skills, Lee Loughridge who’s palette was inspired and really helped bring the story to life and Robin Jones who lettered the project with a lot of subtlety and range.

How did the idea for Nicneven come about?

[It came from] the British folk horror of the 1960s and 70s–films like The Wicker Man and Penda’s Fen. It’s these incredible old TV movies like Robin Red Breast from the era that plays with the pastoral idyll of the British countryside which make the world seem freaky and threatening.

I particularly love children’s TV from that era–shows like Children of the Stones or The Owl Service that are for kids and teens but deal with really heavy issues. They have psychosexual undertones, real horror and threat in a realistic setting–they’ve got it all! I told Dom about an idea I had for something directly inspired by The Owl Service, but modern.

How much research did you have to do?

I did loads of research to create this story. I had an idea inspired by one of my favourite writers, Alan Garner, that the settings should be real and the folklore also rooted in actual stories. So I spent a lot of time researching myths and locations until I found the three hillforts that feature in the story. They really were sacred spaces.

Loads of other details in the book are taken or adapted from what little we know of real druidic practice. For example, like when a character tries to bring on a true vision, he uses a technique many think the druids used.

Sometimes, we see works released in the UK first and then head to America. Was it a choice by the publishers to have it released in one territory first and then “bring it home?”

It wasn’t the original plan. There was a distribution problem getting the stock into the UK for the original release date. So just one of those unfortunate things that happens. Hopefully the book still connects on our home turf and people want to read it!

What made you decide to make Nissy, our protagonist, of African descent?

I think representation is important. Of course the best version of that is BAME writers having a platform on every medium and in every genre. I hope we’re moving in that direction. But I don’t want to be a part of the problem, and I saw an opportunity here to bring a young black character squarely into a space where she may not usually be–among the ancient gods and folklore of Britain. I didn’t really want to write another protagonist who looked like all of the protagonists in folk horror going back decades.

As well as that, I do have a multi-generational back story for Nissy’s mother and her mother, all tied into the mythology, politics and culture of the UK going back to the 90s and then the 60s, and that’s something I’d love to explore further.

Was there ever a moment where you wanted to explore the legends that would connect to the Pendragon family line, be it Uther or Arthur?

I love those legends! Such a rich and inspiring mythology. They are a bit late compared to what I was trying to riff off though, I was trying to get into what (very little) is known about the pre-christian religions and myths.

Fun fact though! Some people believe that the old goddess Nicnevin was actually the mythological precursor to Morgan le Fay, so there is some connection!

Since this story is based on the traditions of Olde Scotland, I have to ask why do faeries like “collecting heads?”

That was something I added in, I must confess. I will say that in the old stories from all over the UK the fairies were not very nice, and in fact could be brutal and dangerous. We needed something effective to show how dangerous they really are.

We reprint an old border ballad in the book called The Ballad of True Thomas. We thought it would be cool to present it like an old story book, but if you look closer at the illustrations you realise that they’re actually really sinister. In the ballad they describe the fairy queen, saying that off her fine mantle and horses silks: “Hung fifty silver bells and nine.”

So I thought it would be really cool if instead of bells, there were heads hanging from the mantle. We then carried that motif through to the end of the book!

Was it difficult to give the Fae folk a different role than in what American readers are accustomed to? That is usually, we see them happy and joyous. In your work, I see them as an animistic type of tribe. They hardly feel like the romanticized Shakespearean type we would see during this playwright’s time. Is that a correct assessment?

That’s definitely correct. It was easy to take them there though, since the scary version has been around a lot longer than the romanticised notion!

Will there be more stories featuring Nissy?

I sure hope so. I have a bunch ready to go, some that go back generation by generation down the maternal line, and one that takes place in London which could be so fun! I guess we’ll just have to wait to see what readers think, and if there’s an audience out there who want more!

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