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Tome On The Range

Drawn From The Fall: Una Baines' Comic On Dating Mark E Smith
Jo Bevan , May 29th, 2015 09:54

Desperate Journalist’s Jo Bevan speaks to the former Fall/Blue Orchids member and artist Keith McDougall about their forthcoming book I’ll Be Your Mirror

I'll Be Your Mirror relates the early days of Una and Mark E. Smith's relationship in the context of an independent, thoughtful teenage girl's life. Illustrated with perfectly pitched tender strangeness, it is a charmingly different take on the artist autobiography.

Set as it is in an era of particularly heightened tensions between free-thinkers and reactionaries – the early 70s – the story opens with Una arguing against the existence of God with a priest in confessional. She is consistently shown as a decisive, intelligent protagonist in a slice of life story about two musicians which is at once fantastical and entirely normal. Juxtaposing the relatable, everyday detail of a budding relationship (hanging out at the funfair, waiting for buses, arguing about politics and music) with true strangeness – there's a segment when Una and Mark take acid together – its tone is quite reminiscent of a Fall song.

Keith McDougall has been making writing about music and making comics for a number of years, including a book about the artist George Grosz, released in 2012. Una has been writing and performing in bands on and off since forming the Fall with Mark E. Smith, Martin Bramah and Tony Friel in 1976. McDougall and Baines worked together on every stage of the writing process whilst living in the house they share in Manchester with Keith's girlfriend and Una's daughters, and the organic nature of the collaboration is evident. The launch party for I'll Be Your Mirror is this Friday, May 29th, at Islington Mill in Manchester where copies of the comic will be available.

How did the two of you meet?

Keith McDougall: My girlfriend knows Louise Woodcock who used to be in Una's band, Poppycock. Louise told us that Una had a spare room, which we took, and then it was mentioned to me that Una used to be in the Fall. I hadn't been aware of this! So sometime last year I got this idea into my head and I said to Una, 'I've got a proposal for you. I'd really like to do a comic book about you.' I interviewed Una, crafted the material into a narrative, and then illustrated it. I'd show it to Una at every step of the process. She'd make suggestions for changes and things like that.

I've been doing comics for a few years and I like making comics about artists and musicians. I like true stories and I like researching things. I'm fascinated by the lives of creative people and people I really admire… I did a book about George Grosz, and I really loved the Fall for many years. Plus I really respect Una and love her music so I figured she must have some pretty interesting stories. I asked her to tell me about them and we went from there – we collaborated on the story together.

Why did you choose this particular story to tell?

KM: On the day that I set the idea to Una she asked me what I was interested in in particular, and I said mainly the bands that she was in. That's all I really specified. Una went away and thought about it and came back and told me she had the first page in her head. She really wanted to begin it at the fairground, when she met Mark for the first time, which I thought would make a fantastic comic. Then after a while she told me more interesting stories including about the school she went to so I decided to put that at the beginning.

Una, in the book you're depicted as introducing Mark to feminism, which reportedly was partly responsible for the political drive of early Fall. Can you tell us a bit more about that and how it progressed?

Una Baines: I did introduce him to the feminist side of things, but Mark was already into George Orwell and stuff like that – pretty left wing. His politics were quite thought out, so these were things we were both interested in, which was a connection we had right away as well as music. His interest in feminism was kind of nil at that point though that's what you would expect from a lad that age in an area like that to be honest.

That makes sense. Do you have any other plans for memoirs, perhaps relating to the Blue Orchids or anything post-Fall?

UB: Yes, for years I have been supposed to be writing a memoir but other things have cropped up so I don't know if it'll ever happen. But we might be doing another book – another comic – leading up to when The Fall started, but after that… As for Nico and all that stuff, I wanted to write a book but I didn't want it to just be about the music side of it – I wanted it to be a bit more holistic.

What I particularly like about the comic – is that it is about someone's life, it's not just a rock book.

UB: Exactly – there's quite a lot of them and it's not in context with reality is it really?

That's what makes these sorts of things really stand out.

UB: Also it was such a random thing in a way, Keith doing the comic. I thought what a great way to do it – I love it.

In your George Grosz comic, Keith, there is a specific art style informed by his paintings. Was there a conscious decision to make changes to your usual style (if you have a usual style) for this one?

KM: Yes and no because a lot of it is unconscious, intuitive. But I was thinking that I wanted to make it look different. I actually redrew quite a lot of it because I didn't like the way it looked. Also I was using a brush instead of a nib, which makes a difference. I guess what I had in mind was to make it look a bit punk and a bit like something from a Fall album cover – which it doesn't really…

I can see that, yeah! In the book there's a segment where Una and Mark do acid together for the first time which is quite lovely. I thought the quality of the drawing was really suited, and I was interested in how centralized that part was. The vibe of the whole book is similar to those teen romance comics but that section at once subverted and, as it was done in quite a sweet way, reinforced it. Did you want to present a slightly twisted romance?

KM: It's interesting that you mention romance comics as the cover of the book was based on a Mills & Boon book! I was looking for images with two figures in an interesting composition and I looked at heaps and heaps of comic books, but then I saw this cheesy Mills & Boon picture and thought that the placement of the faces was something I could use. It's pretty different but how it's composed is the same. I suppose it's not exactly a conventional romance… I called it I'll Be Your Mirror because the song isn't really a conventional romantic song – it's a loving song but it's not about sex or anything. It's just a very nice gesture, and then it could also refer to a lot of things – you could say that the book is about a love affair with music as well as a relationship between two people.

I also thought it could relate to the fact that Mark is so written about so this is telling a story involving him from another perspective, and in context with Una's life as opposed to just his.

KM: Oh yeah. Have you read Steve Hanley's book, The Big Midweek? It's really fantastic. One of the books that really inspired me. There were a few books on The Fall, I haven't read them all all the way through but I did read the Steve Hanley one. It's so well written and all in the first person which is unusual for a memoir. It feels like a novel so it's actually exciting. It's not like someone talking about the old days. It's also interesting because it's by the bassist who was in The Fall for 20 years and most people wouldn't know his name. He's actually quite a shy character who's really not a star at all, he's just in the background for 20 years while Mark's in the spotlight, so that was definitely a big inspiration.

Are there plans for another book? Una mentioned the possibility.

KM: We haven't really started talking about that much yet – I need to interview Una again – but it will probably be about the very early stages of when the band started. I'm not really sure how many issues there are going to be or the exact content. We've sort of made it up as we went along really, which is fun. It's fun to not plan, it makes things more spontaneous. But then sometimes not planning can be a bad thing because then you don't get to avoid obvious mistakes.

And when are you releasing the first issue?

KM: There's going to be a launch party for the comic on 29th May, where Una's band Poppycock are playing along with Ill, one of my favourite Manchester bands. The band Devi are putting on some kind of multimedia extravaganza involving poets and visual artists as well as musicians. And Rose, from Rose and the Diamond Hand, will also be singing with Poppycock on the night.

Excerpt from I'll Be Your Mirror:

I'll Be Your Mirror will be available at Keith McDougall's website. Details for the launch party on May 29th in Manchester here.

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