Salem Brownstone is the stunning graphic novel by John Harris Dunning that will stretch your imagination, test your wits and drag you into an upside-down world you’ll be lucky to wake from.
People inherit all sorts of things from their parents, but a legacy to save the world from evil forces with a team of superhuman circus performers, is quite a lot to take for a sit & spin launderette owner. Amazingly, the tall, dark, handsome and incredibly resilient protagonist, Salem Brownstone, takes to his new escapades with instant ease and open-mindedness. And thus we enter the dark depths of author John Harris Dunning’s imagination, and it’s like following the white rabbit down the hole. “Here, all that is ordinary is useless”, he warns, “only the extraordinary survive” – take heed. John’s biography alone is as good as fiction; born and raised in Zululand, South Africa, he now resides in the haunted London suburb of Hampstead. His partner in fiction, fellow South African Nikhil Singh, provides stunning visuals to accompany Salem through the trials and tribulations John descends, which take on a nightmarish quality at once thrilling and terrifying. i-D Online caught up with the man behind the fantasy for a quick chinwag.
Would you say you have a bigger imagination than most? Ha! Maybe I live in more of a fantasy world than most. I have always enjoyed reading and watching films, and I’ve always had some creative project going. It started with drawing and writing comics as a young boy, and playing really involved games with action figures that stretched over years with the same cast of characters. That progressed onto writing film scripts at film school, then comics and fiction. Writer Anais Nin talked about needing to create a world to inhabit to protect herself from the vicissitudes of the real world – I can relate to that. It’s a great survival tactic.
What inspired you to write Salem Brownstone? What were your references? Sherlock Holmes inspired me to create Salem – I am a huge fan. I like the idea of being a detective, and really investigating the world around you; too often people just coast along taking no notice of their surroundings. As an African (I came here about a decade ago) I was really attracted to exaggerated ideas of Englishness, like Sherlock Holmes, Aubrey Beardsley and Victorian England. I’m also a huge fan of weird literature, like that of H.P. Lovecraft. In terms of comics, the 60s supernatural comics from DC were another influence, for instance The Phantom Stranger.
Did you write it all and then direct Nikhil to draw or was it an organic process? Nikhil coming onboard was a no brainer – he shared my interests and influences. I wrote the first few episodes as five pagers for a UK comics anthology called Sturgeon White Moss. Then I wrote the complete script and Nik worked closely from that.
How do you go about writing a graphic novel? How is the process different from a novel? It is a very different process indeed. I’ve just completed a novel, and I suppose the main difference is the solitude of writing fiction. Having an artist onboard is great – writing the script then getting the completed pages back is such fun! I found that my subjects were also different – in terms of fiction I enjoy writers like Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster, Gayl Jones and Brett Easton Ellis – I find that comics bring out my supernatural and mythological side. My book is more serious than my comic. This doesn’t have to be the case – there are plenty of serious comics – that’s just my experience.
Are you Salem? Yes! Nik based the way he looked on me. We never really talked about it, but that’s what I’d intended. To some degree every creation is a part of you. With Salem it was probably a bit closer than usual, but I haven’t run away to the circus… yet!
How has your personal history impacted on Salem Brownstone? Well, I live in Hampstead, and there is a circus next to my house every bank holiday, just like Salem. The neighbourhood is really gothic, thick with history and hauntings, and that has fed into the book. A teenage obsession with the occult is also very apparent. It’s basically a catalogue of my obsessions.
Do you think the battle of good vs. evil is the basis of every graphic novel? And furthermore of fiction in general? If yes, will good always triumph? No – definitely not. Look at a graphic novel like Ghost World by Dan Clowes, one of my favourites. It’s simply about one girl’s summer. I’m embarrassingly optimistic – so for me good always triumphs over evil – but many writers don’t share that peculiarity.
Will there be a sequel? What’s next for you? I certainly hope so! There are many more Salem tales to tell, and many mysteries introduced in the first book that are waiting to be resolved… I’ve just completed a novel and now the challenge is to find a publisher. It’s about a group of teenagers – a kind of post colonial Less Than Zero set in Africa.
Salem Brownstone is out now. John Harris Dunning is a part of margaret and is features editor of Port magazine.