As someone with a strong interest in horror in folklore and legend I was very pleased to hear that author Mark Allard-Will has published a graphic novel featuring one of the many Black Dogs which legend tells roam rural Britain and whose appearance foretell death and disaster.
The Burning Black: Legend of Black Shuck tells the story of the famed East Anglian example of the Devil Dog legend which is said to have caused the deaths of three residents of the village of Bungay in 1577, and famously left burn marks on the door of the church. We were lucky enough to get to speak to Mark about his work and his interest in folklore.
Richard: As anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s with the Usborne ‘World of the Unknown’ books would be, I’m really into folklore, and presume you are too, but what made you decide to use Black Shuck as the source for your graphic novel?
Mark: I grew up in Suffolk, which is a deeply rural county and it seems that really rural places across the British Isles are really steeped in folk tales. As a result, I grew up with stories like the ghost bells of Dunwich and Babes in the Wood being things I was aware of. Growing up in a rural setting like this had my imagination running wild. I remember, when I’d be taken on a journey somewhere in the car as a kid, thinking the abandoned farms in the wilderness beyond the small town we lived in (Haverhill) must be haunted and that there must be an unspoken darkness hidden in those derelict edges of the otherwise beautiful countryside. Ghost stories were what many of us grew up with and, Black Shuck was one of those too for me. I forgot about the story until I turned 30 and my wife, Elaine M. Will, started looking for cryptids to draw for Drawloween and Inktober and mentioned Black Shuck that it really jogged my memory and got me thinking that I needed to do something with the story of Black Shuck and that idea I had as a kid of that horror of creeping dereliction.
Richard: Although I grew up in the Midlands I lived in Cambridgeshire for 13 years and so I also heard the tales of Black Shuck, and out of all the ‘Devil Dogs’ around the UK he is the one that most people think of when they hear the term. Did you solely base the story around Old Shuck or did you look at any other local dogs? Also did you consider having him with a cyclopean single eye, as W.A. Dutt described him in 1909?
Mark: I did base my re-imagining of the story solely upon the Old Shuck version of the myth from the Bungay and Blythburgh area of Suffolk. It’s interesting that you mention One-eyed Shuck too, because I have heard that version of the myth is really specific to another area of East Anglia and their origins seem to be routed in very specific clusters of towns and villages for the differing versions of the Black Dog myth across England.
Richard: Kickstarter is a great place for creators without large backers to get their art out into the world, but it is a gamble – what did you do to prepare for putting The Burning Black up on a KS?
Mark: For the Kickstarter for the book, the main thing was preparing a thorough and well-scripted description that was broken down in to categorised headings to make it concise, a good (but short) informative video and a clear tagline. Following on from this, the secondary thing was to secure some press attention from comics websites, horror websites, etc to secure some external clicks beyond what I could achieve in my circles.
Richard: As well as writing graphic novels you also have a background in cinematography – I know several people who work in film who began as a cinema operator, it seems to be a great first step! Do you think that imagining it as a film is inevitable when planning a graphic novel, or is it a separate beast entirely?
Mark: That’s a fantastic question! I went to university in High Wycombe, Bucks to study Film and TV Production with a minor in Screenwriting, but after leaving university I then started working in Cinema as a projectionist before progressing on to cinema management. Both of these experiences focus around looking at film as a visual storytelling medium and for The Burning Black: Legend of Black Shuck, I absolutely thought about it as a movie – which is a logical step, because graphic novels are essentially the cousin to films anyway, what with both being visual mediums. As a result, the beats of the graphic novel are very filmic and the story is told far more visually than through dialogue, so it adheres to film’s rule of ‘show me, don’t tell me’ too.
Richard: And as a continuation of that, how much of the storyboarding do you do – is your script heavily annotated with artwork and layout descriptions, or do you leave the blocking out of the art to the illustrators?
Mark: For me, the process of writing a script for a graphic novel is very similar to screenwriting in the sense that I rely more on a vivid imagination than the visual cues of storyboarding. Each panel is written with enough structure description that it is clear enough to the artist to know exactly how the action in said panel should be framed and staged. It’s great that you mention storyboarding, though, because many of the really good artists will plan out each page based on a writer’s script in to roughs known as “thumbnails” and these are normally what an artist uses for approval and to plan their page layout – another similarity to film as well.
Richard: Do you have any plans to create any more works based on horror/folklore? Could this be the start of a franchise?
Mark: I definitely want to return to horror at some point. My thing as a writer is that I have to have a special enough idea in mind to tell as a story to commit to, regardless of the genre; so when that comes to for horror, I’ll absolutely be back.
Richard: As the host of a horror podcast, I have to ask – what are you favourite works of horror? (Other than your book, of course!) Is there anything in horror that you would like to convert to a graphic novel?
Mark: I love film, as you can probably tell so all of my examples of favourite horror will be from film. I recently really enjoyed A Cure for Wellness, that was a movie done so well that it didn’t have to use jump scares as a trick to scare its audience at all – instead it was a genuinely creepy horror that had a psychological element to it. Get Out was another recent one for me. Some of my all-time favourites include Alien, The Shining and the remake of The Fly.
In terms of adapting anything for the graphic novel medium, I’d be scared to touch any great films or horror novels – just for the fact that they’re already great as they are and I’m not be confident that I could bring anything new to the table.
Richard: And finally I see that you are currently planning a new project which will be going up on Kickstarter in August, could you tell us something about that?
Mark: Yes, absolutely. Firstly, it’s a big departure from horror. It’s a graphic novel called Siegfried: Dragon Slayer and is a re-invention of The Völsunga Saga, which is the Icelandic saga and piece of Norse mythology that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write The Hobbit. I’m essentially re-imagining the story from mythology in to a three-act story with modern English as dialogue. It’s going to feature some very special coffee-painted artwork by Jasmine Redford and will be live on Kickstarter on August 1st.
Richard: Many thanks for answering our questions Mark, I’m looking forwards to seeing more of your work.
Richard deValmont is one of the hosts of Bela Lugosi’s Shed, a podcast exploring Horror in all its chilling forms. The podcast covers everything from classic horror novels and films through to modern computer games and music. The podcast is also broadcast three times a week on Bunkazilla UK.