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Photo by Matt Hass

Salem Brownstone: All Along The Watchtowers

We celebrate the publication of John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh's strangely gothic graphic novel.

Back in 2003, Dazed contributor Sylvia Farago published the comic anthology Sturgeon White Moss, and the serialisation of John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh’s character Salem Brownstone became its most talked about feature. To celebrate the publication of their first graphic novel, Salem Brownstone: All Along The Watchtowers, Dazed sat down with author John Harris Dunning to discuss how Salem went from a comic strip to the labour of love that is now being published.
Dazed Digital: How did you conceive the idea of Salem Brownstone? Is he based on anyone in particular?
John Harris Dunning: The idea of Salem came from many places, but a major influence was Sherlock Holmes. I've always admired his sense of style and unflappable curiosity, even when presented with the macabre and horrific. I guess as an African immigrant I'm still kind of hung up on ideas of 'Englishness'. There is also an autobiographical element – although, unlike Salem, I haven't managed to befriend any circus freaks or contact my magical familiar... yet! I was a late starter to books, but I read comics voraciously and was actually dreaming in panels with captions by the time I was 10. I have consumed so many great works, it seemed only fair to start trying to give something back. Now is a particularly good time for comics creators, people are taking an interest in comics agai. After Joe Sacco's Palestine, Marjane Satrape's Persepolis, and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, people who have never picked up a comic before are now doing so.
DD: The narrative tells the tale of circus freaks, magic and gothic fantasy. Did it come from anywhere specific?
JHS: The story started as a short five-page episodic comic in Sturgeon White Moss, and soon the story and characters had taken on a life of their own. At that point artist Nik and I just said to each other, 'Let's finish this thing!' The closest correlations I can think of to Salem's genre are the weird tales of HP Lovecraft and his mileu, but the story itself was more a result of my own interest in the occult and occult literature. As we got to know each other better, Nik would draw certain things that would inspire me, and I would write scenes that I knew he would particularly enjoy drawing. The whole process felt a little like magic. Hampstead was very much an inspiration for Salem – it is a neighborhood that has a very rich occult background, what with it being the area of London that Count Dracula chose to inhabit on his move to London. Magician Aleister Crowley and later acolyte Kenneth Anger also haunted its streets, and it has retained its creepy atmosphere.
DD: How did you and the Salem Brownstone artist, Nikhil, meet?
JHS: Nik and I met through a very good mutual friend who was at school with Nik and at university with me. I had written the script for the first five-page episode of Salem and was looking for an artist to collaborate with. Nik was working at the Hare Krishna temple in Soho Square. It was hilarious to see the Krishna's sort of warily working alongside Nik, I think they were afraid that he would suck them into his cult! I've always liked the idea of a cult, and even before Nik worked there I'd often go for a meal at the Soho Krishna temple and hope someone would try to kidnap me, forcing me to live on a commune and sing and dance all day with that fantastic glazed-eyed look you see in hysterical anti-cult TV documentaries!

DD: Do you have an all-time favourite graphic novel?
JHS: It would be very hard for me to pick my single favourite graphic novel, there is just too much good work out there. UK comic writer Alan Moore is the man, and I've read and re-read loads of his work. I think my favourite of his might have to be the poignant space opera The Ballad Of Halo Jones. It breaks my heart every time. US comics’ creator Dan Clowes' book Ghost World is another infuriatingly perfect work, I wish I'd written it myself! Then there are the Japanese masters like Jumji Ito (Museum of Terror) and Kazuo Umezo (Cat Eyed Boy).
The Salem Brownstone Spooktacular book launch will take place at the ICA on 24th October 2009. For more information on the night’s events visit the Comica website.