Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtower

John Harris Dunning's Victorian-noir novel tells the graphic tale of a young musician and his fight against dark forces from an alien world

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John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh's phantasmagorial debut graphic novel 'Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtower' marks the emergence of both a new talent and a new style and energy to the genre. We caught up with John to talk more specifically about his literary influences and his future writing projects.

Dazed Digital: What sort of things did you read as a child? Did anything particularly influence Salem Brownstone?
John Harris Dunning: The things I read and watched had a huge influence on this book. I was obsessed with comics during my childhood - I actually dreamed in comic book panels by the time i was ten, complete with word bubbles and thought balloons. I read books quite late really - in my early teens I discovered Frank Herbert's 'Dune' and all of H.P. Lovecraft's weird tales. Twisted Victoriana like 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Sherlock Holmes' was a big influence too.

I watched loads of horror movies as a kid - all the classics like 'Halloween' and 'Nightmare on Elm Street' - and anything really odd - the film 'Dune' and 'Altered States' were favourites. In my teens I also discovered UK comics anthology 2000AD and writers like Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and Pat Mills. They took it to the next level - and it was the era of the 'graphic novel' - really ambitious comic book writers were breaking the mould. It felt like a revolution! Yeah, so I liked creepy and mind-bending - and I hope 'Salem Brownstone' is both of those!

DD: Do you have any particular literary influences? What sort of things were you reading, watching, taking when you first came with the idea for this traveling magician and the unusual inheritance he leaves for his son?

John Harris Dunning: I'm a voracious reader now - anything from Paul Auster and Thomas Pynchon (who both love their genre literature) to the new Batman series by Grant Morrison that is just such good clean (or dirty!) comic book fun! I still find myself really drawn to writers on or over the edge. Freaks, madmen and revolutionaries fascinate me. Salem was written over such a long period (stop and start over about 7 years - with no initial idea to compile it as a single book) that I simply couldn't tell you all the influences that went into it!

I really wanted to create a character that combined the dapper resolve of Sherlock Holmes with the enigmatic poise of The Phantom Stranger, I suppose. The very early Phantom Stranger comics from the Fifties are just so beautiful. I still love my weird literature - I'm currently reading Dashiell Hammett's (out of print) horror anthology 'Creeps at Night' - what a title! And two of my favourite weird tales ever that I revisit time and again are 'The Great God Pan' and 'The White People' by Arthur Machen - truly other.

DD: Surreal is a massively overused word but in this case... How hard was it to attach prose to what is essentially a completely imaginative landscape? Do you identify with surrealism or any surrealist texts?

John Harris Dunning: Easy actually - the process was in fact the reverse: as with most comics, the words came first, and those strong bones were covered in delightfully oozing flesh. The artwork was very much in keeping with the story I had envisioned. I love surrealism, but it deviates from that tradition in that there is a narrative that binds the images, as opposed to a free flow of unrelated or juxtaposed images.

DD: Now that this Graphic Novel vs Comic argument has finally subsided what's next for the medium? Do you see it going more d.i.y? Where does technology fit in?
John Harris Dunning: Good point - that whole argument is a bloody bore now - although it still continues in some (unenlightened) quarters. Comics can be DIY - and I am a huge supporter of that - it can often lead to more commercial possibilities... I'm not really one for that myself. Can't be bothered really. I just hung on for a completed project and a publisher went for it. Along the way I was lucky to receive the support of being included in UK comics anthology Sturgeon White Moss.

There are loads of different routes to take - just do it! Yes, technology is definitely becoming an important component. There are some beautiful web comics, and we are going to see some of the best work of the coming years appear in this form. They can look really edible on an iPad! Comics will continue to mutate in all directions and conquer the earth!

DD: As a writer, are you going to continue writing in the medium? Do you write prose?
John Harris Dunning: Yeah, I'll always write comics! I'm cooking up another idea for my publisher Walker Books (who are at the forefront of the comics revolution here in the UK right now) and I have completed a novel that will be sent out to publishers soon - wish me luck! I've just started another prose novel about multiple personality disorder and male midlife crisis - I'm uniquely qualified to tell the tale, ha ha!

Walker Books presents Salem Brownstone is released today, 2nd June 2011. Get in touch with John Harris Dunning on Facebook for more details.

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