A Quiet Word With: Roman Webcomic Author @spqrblues

Roman Cartoon

This week we’re lucky enough to have an interview with Carol Burrell, AKA Klio, the very talented lady behind the SPQR Blues webcomic.

History Mine: Without spoiling your plotline too much, would you consider SPQR Blues to be counter-factual, or straight historical fiction?

Klio: There’s very little in it that couldn’t have happened. Occasionally people show up in places other than where they’re believed to have been at the time, but in the historical record there’s an awful lot of “his whereabouts for the next five months are unclear, but he must have been in Rome in December because he poisoned his cousin during the Saturnalia party.”

There’s a little timeline compression once our hero Felix gets to Herculaneum, so events happen over the course of a year that probably took three years in reality (if you squint, it still works out). One thing I think separates it from straight-up historical fiction is that, although most characters are based on real people, the main viewpoint is about Felix, who is entirely made up.

SPQR OldBut even he is based on an unnamed person found at Herculaneum. The really counter-factual part is the story he gives about his ancestry, and then how the historical figures react to it. Could it have happened? It gets a “plausible.” Pretenders showed up all the time, so there’s precedent. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler!

HM: When you set your story in the shadow of Vesuvius, it’s a bit of a Chekov’s Gun. I’ve said similar things before about setting a film on the Titanic. Why did you choose this setting?

K: SUCH a big gun. Chekhov’s cannon. The fact that anything set near Vesuvius takes place in a running hourglass adds automatic urgency–when will it erupt? who will escape? will the kitten be rescued? In my early teens we studied an ancient lawsuit involving a girl named Petronia Iusta who lived in Herculaneum, and I became fascinated by how the city is a time capsule (and Pompeii too of course). We know so much about ordinary people as individuals with names and jobs and homes and comfy chairs.

It became much more interesting than the usual course of learning about emperors and assassinations and wars and epic poetry, which ignores the main substance of a culture’s life (and incidentally almost always cuts out the women’s experiences). I started tinkering with characters, and two things happened along the way: September 2001 and August 2005. I believe modern Americans and ancient Romans have a lot in common in their mindsets and motivations. It occurred to me to contrast the ancient response to a shattering disaster with the modern one. All those things rolled into one another and propelled an idea that had already been percolating.

spqr blues NewHM: I know there has been a lot of speculation about what the title refers to, and you have stated that it refers to the city watchmen, but I wondered whether it might also be a reference to NYPD Blues, The New York Police Department. Is that true?

K: Yes! I grew up surrounded by that culture through my father and his friends. Guys in blue who seemed very big and impressive (and loud-cussing, and hard-drinking, and sometimes a little crazy, and loyal). It was an easy theme to fall into. The title was an offhand joke, but ended up influencing the story a lot.

HM: Did you originally intend this to be a cop story?

K: Yes, again. A sort of a cop soap opera. Man with a secret arrives in a town with its own mystery. “Who wants to kill Petronia Iusta?” And “Will she be consigned to life as a slave?” And “Will the cop get the dame?” And then, “Whodunnit?” Noir and actiony and with lots of stabby escapades. Other elements got stirred into the plot pot (the conflict between Felix and his Jewish relatives, that new religious cult, crisscrossed love stories). Once the comic got started, it wanted to be something different than I originally thought it was going to be.

SPQR VesuviusHM: How do you research a series like this?

K: Everywhere I can! I studied Latin in high school and Greek and Classical Studies after, so I had that background in knowing where to find reliable resources. I keep up on what’s available in scholarly books through things like the Bryn Mawr Classical Review; and I go to original sources whenever possible–eyewitnesses, the poets and playwrights who wrote social commentary, early historians (taken with a grain of salt, but their spin is part of the fun).

Since Herculaneum and Pompeii are preserved, you can look at what was actually there. I’m sure I get things wrong, either from a gap in research or from eliding over details when I don’t feel like drawing all the pleats in a tunic, but when I’m revved up I’ll pull out a couple of books, look at frescoes, and study statues if I want to make sure everybody is wearing plausible sandals.

spqr blues new ladiesHM: Possibly related, where does the inspiration come from?

K: Along with the Petronia Iusta case, from my overall love of Romans, and from studying every scrap I could find about Marcus Antonius and his family. Two branches of my family are Italian, so I was already tilted in that direction. Plus, I was getting frustrated by the pop-culture “ancient Rome” being taken as how things really were by some political pundits (whose names and cable network I’ve forgotten), so I have to give them part of the credit for making me pick up a pen.

I love sword-&-sandals movies, shows like Xena, gladiator time-travel romance novels, but those are for fun. Richard Burton and Victor Mature swooning over Jean Simmons looks pretty and there’s exciting music during the chariot races–give me Cinemascope and Technicolor and I’ll be happy all day. But I wanted to create something that has more to it. Also, alas, no gladiators.

HM: Are there any Roman practices that you enjoy exposing for your readers?

K: Showing the nitty gritty of the daily grind. I have no qualms about drawing a toilet. Showing that people thousands of years ago got on with things in a kind of modern-feeling way–doing the laundry and scrubbing pans and sending birthday notes and filling out bureaucratic forms in triplicate. I wanted to show that ancient people had deep and meaningful spiritual and moral beliefs, that their religious conviction was more than fancy temples and marble statues and names in a mythology book. That women worked around the restrictions placed on them. That “Antony and Cleopatra” may not be what we think it is.

The political pundits I mentioned before were, for some weird reason, holding up Rome as an example of how western culture has never allowed gay marriage; part of the comic is about what it meant to be gay in a society that on the one hand worships “traditional” marriage, and yet on the other hand was perfectly fine with what we would consider a modern definition of homosexuality and de-facto same-sex marriage as long as people behaved otherwise “respectably.” The time period also reflects on the conflict in the Middle East–the hero’s frustration that all the awful things done there were supposed to end the problems. So…there’s a lot going on.

SPQR Trajan

HM: What’s with the bears?

K: Gotta love bears. They’re fierce, protective of their own, and deceptively cuddly-looking. Before I started SPQR Blues, I did a one-shot comic of a “police officer” in Herculaneum pondering how to get a cow down from on top of an arch. Vesuvius blows up, problem solved. I recreated the scene in SPQR Blues, and a bear seemed more likely to have made it up an arch. Readers liked the bear, asked when it would show up again, somewhere along the line it acquired a name (Sweetums), and there were many requests (stern demands) that Sweetums survive the eruption. Plus I’m so horrified by the idea of bear-baiting as entertainment that I agreed that the comic could use a bear hero who wins in the end.

Thanks very much Klio for taking the time to talk to us! Please go and check out SPQR Blues for yourselves. If you like it, please feel free to support it via Patreon.

A Quiet Word With: New World Byzantine Designer Andrew Gould

This week we were lucky enough to steal some time from Andrew Gould, a partner from the New World Byzantine architectural design studio. If you’ve got a house that you want to look old, and you live in Charleston, South Carolina, maybe you can hire them! A lot of the people we’ve interviewed before work in a digital space, but these guys are totally concrete.

The Otranto House was what first caught my attention. Look how awesome it is!
The Otranto House was what first caught my attention. Look how awesome it is!

History Mine: How do you decide where to balance historical design with modern functionality?

Andrew Gould: I don’t see that as dichotomy, because I don’t consider my buildings “historical design” – I consider them “traditional design”. Architectural tradition is simply a loose cannon of sensible and pleasing ways that things have always been built. It is a broad cannon from which to choose inspiration, and the choice of which traditional materials and details I use is driven in large part by modern practicalities. For instance, solid brick buildings are historically prevalent in Charleston, but not practical to build nowadays due to earthquake codes. So I build from concrete block and stucco and use brick as accents. Even though concrete block is a fairly modern material, it’s still solid masonry, and still traditional if detailed right.

HM: The Mugdock Castle must’ve been an inspiring project. How does something like that come about? 

AG: It’s an unusual story. My first building in Charleston was the Orthodox church I designed in the I’On neighborhood – a prominent new-urbanist development outside Charleston. The developer wanted churches in his subdivision so it would function as a traditional town. Well, that developer also wanted to get an Episcopal church in there, so he bought a deconsecrated historic stone church on Sullivan’s Island, a few miles away. He planned to move the building to I’On, using a barge, but Sullivan’s Island enacted a historic district to prevent him from removing their building. Being stuck with the old stone church, he decided to renovate it as an estate for his family, naming it after the Scottish castle of his ancestors. He turned the church into a great hall, and needed to build an addition to house the bedrooms. And he wanted to it to be quite tall to get a view of the ocean. He was so impressed with the massive medieval architecture of the church I had designed in I’On, that he asked me to design his castle addition. He said he wanted it to look older than the Gothic church, so I did it in a sort of whimsical Scottish Romanesque style. It was a wonderful project because I was able to design every little design over the course of several years.

Mugdock Castle is a massive edifice, far more unique than most mansions.
Mugdock Castle is a massive edifice, far more unique than most mansions.

HM: As a European, I find that Americans are fascinated with history. Is this a reflection of the fact that America is still a very young country?

AG: At least with regards to art and architecture, I think the American obsession with history can be ascribed to our dearth of beautiful buildings. Most Americans live in very bland and artificial environments, and rather desperately crave some connection to historical beauty. Unfortunately, this is usually manifest in ridiculous commercialism, like Thomas Kinkade paintings and suburban shopping malls called Ye Olde Towne Centre. It is very rare in America for new buildings to actually revive tradition, and not just superficially reference it. So the few actual historic buildings and towns we have are treated with a lot of reverence.

HM: Leading on from this, would you agree if I was to suggest that part of what you are doing is reinforcing that early colonial history?

AG: Yes, definitely. In colonial times, America had really fine art and architecture. It was distinctive, not quite the same as European styles, and in many ways, better. It was something to be proud of. By building new traditional buildings I am encouraging people to identify with their cultural heritage – to think of it as something relevant – something that is still part of American life. 

Fortunately, the revival of American tradition is thriving in many other fields, such as craft brewing and distilling, heritage cuisine, graphic art, folk music, etc.

The Mountain Residence is one of Andrew's projects, a masterpiece of early American architecture.
The Mountain Residence is one of Andrew’s projects, a masterpiece of early American architecture.

HM: Do you have any current or future projects which particularly excite you? Could you tell us a bit about them?

AG: I’m working on a big Orthodox church in Greenville, SC. It’s interesting because it is Byzantine in form (cruciform with a dome), but all built honestly out of wood in the style of a Victorian American church. It’s an experiment in uniting the liturgical traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy with the building traditions of South Carolina, and I think it will be quite successful. I enjoy projects like this, which result in a building that is wholly traditional, and yet does not particularly resemble any building that was ever built before.

Thankyou Andrew, and please be sure to check out the New World Byzantine website.

A Quiet Word With: B4-XVI’s @ceciliaazcarate

This week I had a chat with the talented CECILIA AZCARATE, the woman behind the B4-XVI tumblr, which aims to ‘highlight an invisible conversation between hip hop and art before the 16th century’.

@ceciliaazcarateHistory Mine: What was the moment of inspiration for this account?

CECILIA AZCARATE: Virgin and Child Enthroned with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Morata Master (Spanish, Aragonese, late 15th century). The painting inspired the project, I saw it at the Met Museum. I saw the hat on the floor and on the guy to the right, that look like supreme hats, and after that started collecting other similarities.

Virgin and Child Enthroned

HM: What is your favourite comparison?

CA: I really like the Van Eyck ATL Twins one cause the Van Eyck is so famous and they are so unique and it’s funny to give it a new meaning.

HM: It could be argued you’re saying that rappers have a medieval attitude. How would you respond to that?

CA: I would argue that rappers have the most swag now a days, just like the people in those paintings. They were painted to be remembered. It was a time where creating an image was super time consuming so it meant a lot that those people got their image painted they were super important and some of them changed the world.

I’m also using a lot of masterpieces like Van Eyck, Fra Angelico the most important painters in europe in that time. So I see it more as a tribute to the artists to compare them to such masterpieces. I think it goes both directions.

Hugo van der Goes Vs Wiz Khalifa
Left: Detail from The Adoration of the Magi. Hugo van der Goes. Netherlandish. Late 15th century / Right: Wiz Khalifa

HM: On the other hand, do you think historical figures behaved more like rappers?

CA: I think they just had swag and power and money, and that is where the similarities come from.

HM: Which historical figure would fit in best with the modern rap game?

CA: Louis XVI and Henry VIII and all of them were so decadent they would have thrown mad parties and invited everyone.

Left: Henry VIII by the studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-1550 / Right: Rick Ross.
Left: Henry VIII by the studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-1550 / Right: Rick Ross.

Imagine if Louis XVI was alive, of course Kanye would be playing in Versailles.

Now go and check out CECILIA’s sick tumblr! And if you like the idea of hip hop history, you might also enjoy our interview with Epic Rap Battles of History’s Nice Peter.

A Quiet Word With: Web Comic @happletea Creator Scott Maynard

If you haven’t heard of it, Happle Tea is one of the best web comics around. It is the work of artist Scott Maynard, and I thought it was high time we had a word with him. Here it is for your viewing pleasure:


History Mine: Why does history particularly appeal to you as a subject? Is it something that lends itself to web comics?

Scott Maynard: I think it can lend itself very well to web comics. History and, particularly, mythology, may not be the best way to attract notice on the internet but they are pretty timeless topics. Where topics like pop culture and video games may be more exciting or seem more relevant in the moment, history is at the heart of everything we do today. Writers and artists draw a ton of inspiration from the past and it’s said that there are no truly new stories. Being familiar with history and mythology opens your eyes to a secret world of amazing content that is both entertaining and enlightening and I think for those reasons, these topics can make for excellent comics.


HM: How do you research each strip?

SM: I utilize a ton of reference materials! I have books on a lot of different mythological topics, I’ve read through a lot of the major works on the subject, and I’m always reading more! It can be a little bit difficult to recall everything I’ve read, seeing as I read very widely but somewhat shallowly on particular regions, but it’s easy to grab a book and refresh my memory. My favorite reference book is The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. It doesn’t work so great as a primary source when writing the blog post articles, but it’s great for quickly refreshing my memory or browsing through for comic topics!

HM: I notice that a few particular eras (Vikings, Ancient Egypt) tend to crop up quite a lot. What attracts you to these periods?

SM: Norse, Egyptian, Greek, and Biblical mythologies are definitely the big four for me, the main draw being that they’re very accessible to a lot of people, especially in the “Western World”. Though folks may not have read the source materials, they usually at least have some passing knowledge of the topics through school, pop culture, friends/family, and church. Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythologies are particularly great because (like I mentioned above) they are the source for a lot of our stories today and thus they still have a lot of relevance. It’s surprising to think that we could have so much in common with people from so long ago, but that’s what makes these topics so intriguing.

Viking Court

HM: Where do you take inspiration from?

SM: The Muses, obviously! haha But seriously, I’m inspired by all sorts of things. My inspiration for sharing mythology is to show where so much of culture today springs from, to make the historical relevant again by trying to show, clearly, the connections between the people of the past and ourselves today. By understanding the past, we can better know the present. Making comics has always been about relating to people, sharing ideas, and trying to entertain and brighten peoples’ days while also hopefully educating them a bit as well. It’s also been a process of education for myself, both artistically and on the subject of mythology. I think that life is about growth and making comics and writing blog posts is also about growing with my readers.

HM: In what ways is history relevant in the modern age?

SM: There are oh so many ways! History, in general, defines the present, thus understanding where things were helps us to clarify where they are today. This can be examined in a geographical, political, or cultural context. For instance, without some knowledge of the history of the Middle East, the conflicts and struggles of modern day Israel would seem absolutely bizarre to us today. Though most of ancient mythology may not be of particular importance to modern political issues, it does give us some insight into the cultural history of world and give us a little bit of understanding of our fellow inhabitants of the earth.

New Testament

HM: You include a detailed explanation with every strip. How did this come about? Are you worried that it’s too much of an in-joke?

SM: Initially, the blog post started as a simple way to interact with readers, but it ended up growing into a major facet of operating the site. I often make comics about the popular view of particular mythological topics, not necessarily about the way the topic is presented in source materials. Having the blog post allows me to clarify what source materials might say VS what people today might believe. It also allows me to expand on topics covered in strips when I do use source materials for a joke. I try not to make comics on subjects that are too arcane, so I don’t usually feel like people need to read the blog post in order to get the comic’s joke. In general, it’s a tool I try to use to inform people about the strip’s topic and expand on it.

The Talk

HM: Do you have favourite historical characters?

SM: I absolutely love Zeus, I think that’s become pretty apparent to my readers. He’s such a widely known figure and, in particular, his sexual appetite has been a major source of humor. I could do strips about Zeus every day! Aside from him, I love Thor, Buddha, Jesus, Sun Wukong, and Seth.

HM: Why the humungous zips?

SM: Haha! I started doing that as a way to push the character design of Lil K a bit more. I thought it would be funny and a defining feature if he had a gigantic zipper, but all it ended up doing was hampering the character acting! Unfortunately, the zipper has not made an appearance in some time. It was sent to a farm upstate where it could roam free in the fields.

Lil K

If you haven’t checked it out yet, now is definitely the time to go and have a read of Happle Tea. The comic also has a linked Patreon account, so if you’ve really enjoyed it, why not say so with warm, incorporeal cash? Finally, don’t forget to check out some of the interviews we’ve conducted with other insanely creative people.

A Quiet Word With: The Enigmatic Australians Behind @WtfRenaissance

The acerbic wits behind WTF Renaissance are not the first people to notice how ridiculous Renaissance paintings were. But they are possibly the first people to highlight that ridiculousness by contrasting pictures with droll C21st captions in a very successful Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook trio that has spawned many imitators, but no equals. For this reason, we thought it was high time that History Mine had a chat with the mysterious individuals.

History Mine: Who are you?
WTF Renaissance: The artist(s) choose/s to remain anonymous to protect her/his/their privacy.

HM: What inspired you to create the blog in the first place?
WTFR: A terrible combination of art school, comedy writing and having not much else on. Plus, these paintings are ridiculous.

HM: Do you come across renaissance paintings a lot in your daily life?
WTFR: Only when we Google search them every day.

HM: Does the painting inspire the caption, or the reverse?
WTFR: Both. Sometimes we’ve got some Taylor Swift gear that will not quit. Other times, someone in a painting has weird eyes and we want to talk about that.

HM: What is it about the pictures that makes them comic gold?
WTFR: Our fully sick captions. Actually, we don’t know. But if we don’t laugh while we’re writing them, they don’t get posted. There are a lot that didn’t make the cut.

HM: Will you ever run out of weird renaissance paintings?
WTFR: Never. Sometimes we use non-renaissance paintings and people lose their minds. Their insane comments are far funnier than anything we could ever write.

Everything else will remain a mystery. If you’ve enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out WTF Renaissance on Twitter, WTF Renaissance on Tumblr, and WTF Renaissance on Facebook. You might also enjoy some of our other off-beat interviews.

A Quiet Word With: Historical Cosplayer and Complete Polymath @JanineSpendlove

Janine's Wonder Woman costume

I have a new favourite person. She’s a high school history teacher turned US Marine/pilot/published author, but that’s not why I approached her. Her name is Janine Spendlove, and she designs historical versions of historical twists on iconic fictional costumes. One of the projects she has been working on is a renaissance-era Justice League of America. For reasons.

Janine's Wonder Woman costume

History Mine: How exactly did the idea for the Renaissance Justice League of America occur?

Janine Spendlove: At Dragon*Con 2009 our little group of friends all got together for our traditional Monday night dinner (since it seems we rarely get to see each other during the course of the weekend) and we were discussing all the cool steampunk groups we’d seen. We all liked the concept, but none of us were that into steampunk. My husband, Ron, had been trying to convince us to do a Justice League group for a while, but many of us were not keen on running around in skin tight outfits. So then, and I’m not sure quite how it happened, but Ron ended up jokingly saying “Instead of a steampunk JLA, we should do a Renaissance JLA.” And the idea caught fire.

By the end of the dinner we’d had a ton of people say they wanted to do the group, and claiming their characters (Ron and I immediately jumped on Superman and Wonder Woman, our favourites). By the next year many of the original people who wanted to do the group couldn’t, but over the years some people have added in, and others have left. It’s a really fluid group, and any one is welcome to join us. Honestly the only requirement is that you do a Renaissance version of a DC character costume (villains included) – we want to be as inclusive as possible with this group.

HM: How much research did you do?

JS: I knew next to nothing about historical costuming, so I consulted my friend Maggie at Costumer’s Guide, and she pointed me in the right direction. I narrowed down the era and the country I wanted to go with and then settled on a dress that was fairly historically accurate (I ended up picking an Anne Boleyn dress). From there I printed it out in black and white, and coloured it to get the looks and colours I wanted.

Since we couldn’t see Wonder Woman’s iconic boots, I thought using the overskirt to call back to them would be good, so I went with red, lined with two thick white stripes on the outer skirt. This also minimized how much blue with stars there would be on the under-skirt, since I didn’t want to look like an American Flag. I also wanted to have her bracers, so called back to them by having the sleeves lined in metallic silver.

HM: What are your favourite touches from each of the JLA outfits?

JS: This is hard because I really love all aspects of all the costumes. But I’ll name a couple things. For Superman it’s got to be the red striped poofy pants. They make me laugh, and really remind me of Supe’s ‘manties’. For both Batman and Hawkgirl it’s their lovely leather masks – so perfect! The Wonder Twins… their entire costumes crack me up! Jimmy Olsen’s sketch pad so he can draw us is brilliant. Cyclone’s simplicity and focus on her gold logo is perfect, and for my own wonder woman, my favourite part is my lasso!

HM: There isn’t much of a convention culture here in the UK, so could you tell us about it? It seems like you’re changing outfits a lot!

JS: I’m usually at conventions as a writer now, so 99% of the time when I go, it’s to work. Because of my costuming background I do end up judging a lot of costume contests. But, 5-10 years ago there were days at Dragon*Con where I’d wear five different complicated costumes in a day. I honestly don’t know where I got the energy to make all those costumes and change into them and actually get some quality time in them!

Conventions like Dragon*Con have a lot of group meet-ups and it’s a lot of fun, and I wanted to be a part of as many of them as possible. These days, if I take a costume to a con, it’s usually something to compliment my daughter’s costume, or something subtle (like Disney Bounding). I do always take a big costume to Dragon*Con. Lately it’s been my Thor costume for my Avengers group. SO MUCH FUN!

HM: You based the ‘historically accurate Snow White’ outfit on Claire Hummel‘s cartoon. What was the particular appeal of that outfit for you?

JS: I love Snow White and she’s my favourite Disney princess. I took one look at Claire Hummel’s historical version and was like “I MUST HAVE THIS DRESS, LIKE; YESTERDAY.” It was a very visceral reaction. I loved it! This dress is actually my fourth different Snow White costume, so pretty much if you make awesome Snow White fan art, I’ll probably try to find a way to make a costume of it.


HM: How much wardrobe space do you need?

JS: HAH! When I was at my peak (sewing a ton of costumes and wearing 15 different costumes at a con) I had an entire room dedicated to storing my costumes and their accessories (in all fairness, like a third of the costumes were my husband’s since we like to do ‘couples costumes’). Then we moved away from the countryside and our large house to a tiny apartment in the city, and had to get rid of a lot of stuff, so I culled down my costumes. So I’d say that my costumes now fill up an entire hanging closet plus four to five large bins of accessories. And I haven’t even touched shoes…

HM: Could you tell us a bit about your books?

JS: I write all kinds of fiction, military sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and more. But what I’m best known for is my fantasy trilogy; War of the Seasons. It’s about a girl named Story who falls into a world filled with trolls, dwarves, elves, dryads, and really nasty faeries that try to kill her a lot.

My favourite part about writing is the research aspect of it, because whether I’m writing fantasy or non-fiction, I’ve always got to dig into history somewhere. For example, my War of the Seasons trilogy is deeply steeped in Celtic mythology, and that was an absolute blast to research not just the mythology itself, but the time period. My next book series will be based in Norse mythology so I’ve been studying up on Vikings; absolutely thrilling!

HM: How the hell do you fit the time in?

LOL! Well, I have written a blog post about that. The big thing is I prioritize my time. For example, with both my Renn Wonder Woman and Snow White I was in the middle of working on a novel I had to finish. There are only so many hours in the day and there was just no time to do both. So in this case, since no one else could write my books, I hired a friend of mine, Jess, to sew my costumes. She had the time, needed the work, and I knew she’d do an amazing job because I’d seen her other work first hand. Win/win for both of us. There are some costumers out there who turn their nose up at people who don’t sew their own costumes. To that I say I’m very sorry for them and their snobby, cliquey attitude. Costuming should be inclusive, not exclusive.

Thanks very much to Janine for chatting with us. The first book in the War of the Seasons trilogy is available to read for free on Wattpad. You check out Janine’s costumes here and her author website is JanineSpendlove.com. She is on social media as JanineKSpendlove or JanineSpendlove.

If you enjoyed this blog then you might also like some of the other interviews I have done, such as the one I did with the ladies behind Manfeels Park, or my chat with historical Lego modeller James Pegrum.

A Quiet Word With: @ManfeelsPark Creators Morag and Erin

Mansplaining Manfeels Park

From simple puns, mighty web comics spring. That is the premise behind the brilliant new satirical feminist site ‘Manfeels Park‘, a riff on Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’. Web comics are a crazy popular place for people who want to do modern riffs on history, as my current favourites Hark! A Vagrant and Happletea happily demonstrate. So I thought it was only fitting that I got Manfeels Park creators Morag and Erin to share their love with you.

History Mine: Where did the idea come from?

Morag: It’s Erin’s fault, really. We were chatting about some internet comment thread or other, and I said something sarcastic like, “Aww, you hurt his poor man-feels.” She commented that whenever someone used the word ‘man-feels’, she always mentally thought of the pun Manfeels Park. We immediately decided that this was too good a pun to be allowed to go to waste, and the other ideas – using genuine commentary, using TV stills – that was all borne of laziness really!

HM: What is the particular appeal of Pride and Prejudice?

Mo: Well, it had to be Austen, obviously, or at least recognisably Regency, for the sake of the pun. The more we got into it though the more we realised that Austen was perfect due to the gender politics of the novels. Obviously they’re of their time, but even then Austen had a lot to say about how confined and subjugated women were, how ridiculous it was that they were expected to live their lives waiting and hoping for a good match, that estates were entailed away from the female line, and the unreasonable expectations placed on women in terms of their virtue and chastity while men got to do as they please with comparatively little in the way of punishment or consequence – Austen is, let’s not forget, awash with repeat male offenders like Wickham and Willoughby. Alongside the bounders and cads are the stiff-upper-lipped self-important posh boys with entitlement complexes, most of whom either think they’re God’s gift or at least think they should be. It’s not universal – some are shy, some are older and wiser – but there’s plenty of mockable behaviour from these guys in their less self-aware moments.

On top of Austen’s derision for these bounders and heroes, though, there’s a layer of fondness. Darcy is a total pig for a large chunk of Pride and Prejudice; his proposal scene is utterly cringeworthy in its self-importance and disregard for Lizzy’s feelings, treating it as obvious that she was an unworthy match and perfectly reasonable that he should feel so conflicted – moreover even as he denigrates her family and her connections it’s obvious that he thinks he can abuse them all he likes and Lizzy will accept him regardless.

Tantrums Manfeels Park

And of course (SPOILERS!) she doesn’t. But she does grow to love him anyway. She learns that he has a core of decency in spite of his self-importance and entitlement. Maybe I’m reading more in than folk will find in these comics, but I feel like this context – the meta-text I suppose – gives a note of sympathy to the male characters. In ‘Feminism in the Anglosphere‘, the two characters have a short, hostile exchange, and then after a moment’s pause head off toward the house together – they haven’t fallen out. Most of us hardened feminists have dear male friends who frustrate us on a nigh-constant basis with their pig-headedness about issues like privilege, rape culture and representation of women in media, but we love them anyway. I would like to hope that the Austen lovers who read the comic pick up on that dimension – who knows.

As to Pride and Prejudice specifically, to be honest any Austen-y, Regency-era stuff would be fair game in theory as a setting. I’ve thus far been using screencaps from the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice specifically for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s an iconic adaptation. The people who love it have often watched it over and over again, and could I’m sure tell you the exact scene used for every comic in the series so far. This gives it extra appeal for those readers because references make our brains happy. Relatedly, using this version I was able to create comics like ‘Lake Scene‘, which exploits the infamous ‘Darcy jumps in a pond because of his man-feels’ beloved by Colin Firth fans everywhere. This scene isn’t actually in the book, but the fans love it anyway. Additionally, I’m not sure any Lizzy Bennet has rolled their eyes heavenward quite as well as the wonderful Jennifer Ehle did!

Secondly, it’s an adaptation I personally know backwards and have thousands of screencaps for. I can scan very quickly to the scene I want to use. Then I pull it into Photoshop, hand trace over it using a graphics tablet, and BOOM, comic drawn. Basically it’s all about laziness again! It takes some skill and patience I suppose but it’s much quicker than drawing from scratch would be and since I have no artistic integrity whatsoever I have no qualms about cutting said corners, particularly when the end result looks pretty good.

HM: Us guys come out with some absolutely bat-shit crazy things when we get typing, how do you pick the nuggets of gold from the mountains of bullshit?

Erin: A lot of trawling through manure, basically. We’ve been engaging with online discussions of feminism for so long that we know all the tried-and-true arguments, so it’s really about looking for relatively short exchanges that sum up the common things that come up. There are a couple of reliable places to go to find guys trotting out these gems, though it’s meant reneging on the ‘no reading the comments’ pledge that I made to keep my blood pressure down. For every MP comic you see assume there are about a dozen more people expressing that same opinion at any given time, just with worse grammar and spelling.

HM: The comedy comes from the juxtaposition of image and text, but how do you match them up?

Mo: Well about half of them are pretty interchangeable – our heroes chatting while dancing, walking on the grounds or what-have-you. In theory I didn’t go into this with any particular plans to customise the image to the text (in fact, I originally intended to do it ‘Dinosaur Comics‘ style and just reuse the same two or three strips over and over with different dialogue and I may yet begin to repeat art). But as I look through the quotes we’ve collected, sometimes scenes from Pride & Prejudice just come to me – the speech in ‘Monster‘ I read and knew it needed to be Darcy’s proposal speech, likewise I saw the quote in ‘Sporting Craze’ and heard Mr Bennet utter it, and the single piece of dialogue in ‘Lake Scene’ just fit perfectly. And as for ‘Handmaiden of the Patriarchy‘, well…

Mansplaining Manfeels Park

HM: You’ve linked to other comics, such as Hark! A Vagrant. What is the appeal of the medium for you?

Erin: I think I tend to enjoy webcomics because they really require the author to boil down whatever point they’re making into something that fits in five panels (or whatever). Though I love reading books and long-form articles about history and social movements and the like sometimes it’s really refreshing to just get the ultimate highlights, presented in a visually appealing way. Not to mention it’s a lot easier to share (and expect people to read) a comic than something longer, so it allows for connections and propagation in a way that other forms might not.

Mo: To be honest although I do the art for MP, I’m not a huge webcomic reader myself – most of those were chosen by Erin though I’m a massive Kate Beaton (Hark!) fan. We do have a small collection of hard-copy graphic novels and comics but we’re by no means aficionados. I’m a big fan of comics in principle though – when I was a kid my dream job (don’t laugh) was to be an inker – that’s the person who inks over the artist’s sketches before they’re coloured (back in the olden days anyway, increasingly comic book artists don’t divide up the jobs like that any more). I loved tracing and thought that tracing for a living sounded like the best job ever so it’s awesome to get to (sort of) do that now and actually have people see and enjoy it.

Anyway, comics are a great storytelling method, just like novels, or art, or film, and with the amazing comics and graphic novels being produced (over and above the standard fare DC/Marvel stuff – some of which is also very good) they deserve a lot more attention than they get.

I think in the case of Manfeels Park specifically it became a webcomic because of the particular skillset we had available to us to make the joke we wanted to make. It could probably have been done just using the raw screencaps, without converting them into sketches, and had just about the same effect or impact.

HM: In your ‘about’ section, you mention that “Manfeels Park is an exercise in flogging a pun for all it’s worth.” How long could this thing go on for?

Erin: Until we’re truly internet famous and rolling in bitcoins.

Mo: At the moment, judging by the comments on our own website, it’s self-sustaining!

Thanks to Morag and Erin for putting out such a great comic, and thanks for chatting to us about it! If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy reading about the other people we have interviewed over the last few months, like the guy who makes historical Lego models, or the people behind Epic Rap Battles of History.

A Quiet Word With: Historical Lego Modeller @peggyjdb

I’m a firestarter by James Pegrum

Two weeks ago History Mine featured a blog about Anne Boleyn, and why she is so popular online. That blog featured a picture of a Lego model, which was carefully researched and built by Mr James Pegrum. Mr Pegrum is a true artist with bricks, and a great historian, with an eye for everyday dramas as much as important historical events. I thought it was time we had a proper look at his work.

All In The Past by James Pegrum
All In The Past – courtesy of James Pegrum – Venerable Bede at work on his Ecclesiastical History of the English People

History Mine: What are Lego MOCs, and what is the appeal?

James Pegrum: MOCs are ‘my own creation’; basically something individuals come up with as opposed to a set made by Lego or somebody else. As a kid I never got on too well with Airfix and similar kit models. All that glue got messy and then the painting; oh dear. With Lego I could make a mistake and put it right as many times as I felt necessary.

I could also make my own creations, whether it be a model of something in real life or from my own imagination. My older brother used balsa wood, but I didn’t have the skill to follow him. Having continued the hobby into adulthood it has kept its appeal. It helps me unwind from work, and at the same time is highly rewarding once you have made a model. I’ve also combined it with my interest in history and, at times, architecture, which has influenced quite a few day trips!

HM: With LEGO you have to work with the bricks that are available. You’re doubly limiting yourself by building historically accurate pieces. Do you like to make things hard for yourself?

JP: Yes! For me part of the enjoyment is the challenge of trying to recreate something in Lego and keep it as close as possible to the real scene of building. The number of types of Lego bricks has increased since I was a child, and that has made it a lot easier. At the same time I’ve learnt from other adult fans of Lego (AFOLs) ways of using older bricks in different ways, it’s been amazing how much I use basic old bricks in techniques I never knew as a child. It has helped of course being able to get more bricks as an adult.

From the historical accuracy aspect, I get great enjoyment studying a building, a boat, a plane or whatever it maybe I’m modelling. In my everyday job I work in the construction industry as a surveyor and detailing is a very important part of the job, so I’ve brought that into my modelling. So if you ever see somebody at a castle looking at the stone work in close detail; that could be me!

HM: Which creations are you most proud of?

JP: That is an increasingly hard question! My Great Fire of London scene was very rewarding, from both a model and photography aspect. Lego doesn’t lend its self to wonky leaning buildings and I wanted to try to capture the old timber frame buildings of London, which came out quite well. With the lighting it took a lot of shots, but was fun

I’m a firestarter by James Pegrum
I’m a fire-starter – courtesy of James Pegrum – the Great Fire of London begins

The Golden Hinde/Pelican is high up there for me. I have always enjoyed building ships and I visited the recreation of this ship in London with my oldest boy a few years. We spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring and taking loads of images of the ship to help me make a model. Sculpting the hull was very draining and I’m happy with how it came out.

The Golden Hind by James Pegrum
The Golden Hinde – courtesy of James Pegrum

In my top three would have to be one of bigger projects; Tigelfah Castle. This isn’t based on a real castle but takes inspiration from many castles around the UK. I tried to capture the stages of castle development is this model and keep it as realistic as possible at the same time. It has features such as working drawbridges, portcullises, toilets, fires and much more. Furthermore it was part of a team build with seven other UK AFOLs, and overall the medieval scene we created was amazing and a great privilege to be part of.

Tigelfáh Castle by James Pegrum and friends
Tigelfáh Castle – courtesy of James Pegrum – and this is only a corner of the whole build

HM: Do they get broken down once you’ve finished with them?

JP: The large majority do. Part of the appeal of Lego is that it’s recyclable (it would have to be to make it economically viable as a hobby!). The models also take up a great deal of space. That said, I have kept the Golden Hinde along with a few other smaller builds.

HM: How much planning goes into a piece?

JP: It varies depending on the size and complexity of the model. A large castle can take over a year of building and planning. With the Tigelfah castle I kept changing the layout as I progressed. A big factor is whether I have an idea/technique to hand, I’ve found as I’ve been making more models the planning is taking less time as I’ve got more techniques developed and ‘filled’ in my technique library. Recently I’ve been doing forestry scenes so have been developing how I do trees and the like.

HM: How do you go about buying the bricks? What about the very specific bricks (I think I saw a ‘dissolution of the monasteries’ that used diving flippers as gargoyle ears)?

JP: There’s a number of sources to get bricks. Going direct to Lego means you can get pretty much anything that’s current, though it does cost more. The Lego stores have a wall of parts, which can be a good source, though there parts are very limited. Other than that I use a website called Bricklink. It’s cheaper, but you can’t get everything, or in the quantity you need.

I used to buy more in bulk, though now I’ve got a good stock (particularly in light bluish grey) so it’s more about getting those few bricks to finish something off. On specific parts, I would use Bricklink, on the flippers that was a friend, Barney, he worked on the Tigelfah project, and I believe he picked them up on Bricklink.

Hot Water by James Pegrum
Hot Water – courtesy of James Pegrum – A Dubunni tribesman gives a sacrifice to the Celtic god Sulis at what is now Bath

HM: If LEGO licensed 3D printers, would you get one?

JP: Interesting idea! As long as the bricks were official Lego and at their high quality, yes! There are a number of other brands out there, but they don’t match Lego’s quality, which is why Lego are the leading brand.

HM: And is this a social activity as well?

JP: Very much so, there’s a lot social interaction done on the internet as well as public shows.  Over the years I have made good friends with other AFOLs and it hasn’t just been limited to doing group projects.  I belong to a couple of Lego user groups (LUGs, as Lego likes to call them) and these vary in social activity.  The London LUG meets in a pub, which raises a few eyebrows!

Thanks to James for sharing your thoughts. If you’d like to see more of his creations, they are available through James’s Flickr page. We’ve now spoken to guys from both sides of the Atlantic, but the rest of the world, not to mention the ladies out there, are still a bit underrepresented here. Please get in touch and help me redress the balance.

A Quiet Word With: Wonderful London Filmmaker @mrsimonsmith

Last month the Londonist posted a video by filmmaker Simon Smith. What made this video so special was that it combined footage shot 90 years apart. Simon used archive footage from 1924, and then went and found the same angles to get exactly the same shots; layering them together so that viewers can see just how much, or how little, London has changed.

History Mine: Where did you get the idea from?

Simon Smith: In May last year, some archive of London went viral online, and along with millions of others I found it quite beautiful and inspiring. As a weekend project, I decided to try and replicate it. Six months later, and my first film, which was a split screen comparison, was being watched all over the globe.

Technically though, I knew I could do something better, more impressive and stylised, so I started experimenting with super-impositions. Then I found the brilliant archive film Wonderful London, and very quickly my latest film was created.

HM: There is a trend of placing old paintings into modern street scenes, is this connected?

SS: Definitely, I always loved those other techniques, utilising stills and situating them in the same places. I was surprised that no-one had done it with film before.

HM: Do you think the introduction of Google Street View was influential?

SS: Not really actually. I love Street View, and the digital exploration it encourages, but I didn’t use it at all for this project. I already knew all the locations as I live in London.

HM: Where do you find the old footage?

SS: The old footage is available on DVD from The British Film Institute (BFI), though some of it is online, and sooner or later it will all be available online. Pathe have recently put their archive on YouTube which is really stunning and interesting as well as being quite important I think.

As with all information, the internet really democratises it, breaks it free for everyone to see, and use, and learn from. We’re playing catch-up, as we started filming things a century before YouTube made it possible to share it with the world – that’s a hundred years of footage we need to upload, but we’ll get there I’m sure.

HM: How hard is it to find the right angle to match up new and old scenes?

SS: I know a little bit about lenses, and the practicalities of using a camera, and what I realised was that back then they probably only had a single fixed focal length lens. As soon as I worked out what this was (about 28mm, with a much smaller crop factor than my full frame Canon camera) it was incredibly easy. If I’d used a range of archive from different sources it would have been much harder, but I knew this was just one camera I had to copy throughout.

HM: Which locations have changed the most? Which have changed the least?

SS: Most of London has stayed the same I feel, but what was interesting was the amount of locations I went to where there was scaffolding, or boarding, road works or building going on (it’s everywhere) and I wonder if we’re in a transitional phase where very soon this kind of film might not be possible.

Thanks very much Simon! You can check out more of his work at mrsimonsmith.com. If you know any other people we should be interviewing, please get in touch!