Brett Uren is the author of decomposed existential mystery Kuzimu and boozy magical sit-com The Vale. He is a self-styled ‘King of the Monsters’ and would be a misanthrope, if he didn’t find so much to laugh at. Furthermore, if the joke’s about dark rituals to open inter-dimensional gateways into pubs, he’s your man.
He believes that complex stories exploring the spheres of philosophy, science and politics are only memorable if they revolve around strange creatures. It’s true. Check out a myth or fable sometime. Brett lives in a cosy Aylesbury cave with his sired one and delicious little spawnling.
He has been serious about creating art for over 20 years, but only serious about creating comics for the last six. His first series, Kuzimu will soon move from its home at 215 Ink to the hands of his brethren in Dead Universe Publishing, who also release The Vale.
The concept of The Vale clearly draws a lot of inspiration from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Are there any other works you feel have had a huge impact on your as a writer/artist?
I think that Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld novels informed me on how you can work horror motifs into comedy and satire without compromising any of them. The Asterix books were a staple of my childhood, for all their detail and careful approach to skew but not falsify history. Robert Crumb‘s sketchbooks also opened me up to comics and comic-like work that followed a stream of consciousness, as opposed to a concrete external narrative.
Also of great influence on the content of The Vale in particular is the wealth of internet conspiracies out there. I once had a friend who told me he read that CERN was built to open a black hole in Jupiter, so that Cthulhu might come through. I’m sure we’ve all heard about The Royal Family being lizards or that The Illuminati controlling the media will bring about some satanic apocalypse. Some people with too [much] time on their hands need to put the internet down and step away for a while!
How can you not want to write jokes about all that ridiculous supposition? Or the fact that grown adults would confuse/combine fantasy and reality so easily, just because they read it online? I am shocked it hasn’t be covered more extensively by someone before.
How long does it take you to write and draw a single issue? Do you plan each one extensively or do you prefer to watch the story unfold organically as you write it?
It can take about two months to write and draw an issue. This turnaround may seem long for a black and white mini-comic of about half the length of a regular size issue. However, The Vale was designed specifically so that I could not only approach the storytelling from a different angle to my previous series, Kuzimu, but also continue to keep a fairly regular release schedule on something while caring for our new baby.
Initially, the first issue was written and drawn as an anthology short for Dead Universe. It was more of a collection of thoughts about Aylesbury, my hometown. It was also a direct reaction to a bad review of my Kuzimu graphic novel, so on The Vale I had tried to tell a less esoteric story with cultural reference and within a small number of pages. But after that, I couldn’t let go of the characters and drew up a rough outline of the beginning, middle and end of a six-issue story arc. It’s also allowed me to delve into a lot of printed and online historical material related to the entire Home Counties area, with it’s links to old money/power/influence.
At this point, I’ve just completed the script for Issue 6 and the end of the first arc, but ideas keep coming for spin-offs, further arcs and specials. It may be that far from The Vale being a short or a single six issue series, I may push into franchise territory here.
With its combination of high fantasy and disaffected youth, The Vale could be considered social satire. Do you agree, and, if so, what are your thoughts on using satire as an aid for change?
The best way The Vale‘s take on Modern Britain/Western Society was described to me was by a creator friend. Just like in the classic schlocky sci-fi movie They Live, I’ve put on a pair of special lenses to see the world’s weirdness and magic in the usual. Also, the monstrous inequality and corruption inherent in our power structure is no longer hidden beneath a veneer of institutional pleasantries and PR smoothing, but looks as vile as it truly is.
When writing the original short, I did certainly use it as a catharsis of sorts, having been in and out of jobs for the last few years before my current one. For the average joe, the employment, fiscal difficulties and frustration around were there long before the ’07/’08 crisis. So if those were satires, it was only my fleeting reference to what I saw as the reality of living in the Aylesbury Vale at the time, because I wanted to play with grounding fantasy elements in the everyday.
When writing the arc and subsequent scripts, I did get a bit more serious with flagging up more things I perceived as unjust and/or worthy of ridicule. I noticed that we all seem to be swimming in stories of corporatism, revolution and positional abuse, that social media is abuzz with this same material. Despite this, in the most classically British way are quite happy to moan about it all over a cup tea, but not spring into action like in, say, Greece or Egypt.
With regard to the purpose of social and political commentary, I think it plays a useful role as the Canary in a Cage. I am very much of the mind that while things like Mock the Week, The Daily Show and Private Eye may be excellent for prising the national consciousness wide open, they are next to useless if none of the information builds the critical mass towards necessary change. By that I mean the organisation of the citizenry into a body that enacts the very change sought by citizens.
So, out of this soup of disaffection, I guess the rebelling of various characters in The Vale is a form of wish fulfilment. A directive, a hope that action can be taken… and without spoiling anything, perhaps a cautionary tale.
The Vale uses the otherworldly to comment on the everyday. How do you strike a balance between grounding the story in “reality” and incorporating the more fantastical elements?
The balancing of The Vale is pretty straightforward. As the Earth of the comic has been invaded and magical things re-awoken, the fantastical elements tend to be ‘added’ to our own reality, in the same [way] that technology and foreign cultural idioms have been added to British culture over time.
Older magic and monsters are superimposed onto the societal landscape at this point, whereas the youthful characters are fully integrated. The best example of this is Shugg, whose father is an old-school Elder and conqueror, but he is into drinking, dubstep and picking up human girls just like any guy his age. He is also more versed in Scrying technology, which is the post-invasion magical equivalent of web-enabled devices, than his dad and the council.
Apart from a (presumed) lack of Elder Gods, how does the real-life Vale compare to the version you present in the series and how have your own experiences there influenced its portrayal?
I think the world The Vale presents is a pretty accurate portrait of its counterpart, as you say, aside from the magic. It walks a highly contradictory line between being in a hugely wealthy and historical part of England, but being one of the worst-off towns. It is heavily urbanised in attitude, but is still a market town in the middle of farmland.
Because of the lack of control over opportunity and social projects (many of which, like youth funding, has been slashed to pieces), the frustration is apparent. The drinking culture is pretty much the same as any real-world place in the UK, but the pubs in Bucks have a strange tendency towards nooks, back rooms and rumours of tunnel networks that suggest secrets.
Adding to these strange tensions are various stories of friends who departed to foreign climes, only to find themselves back here inexplicably. You ask them ‘what’re you doing back here?’ and they’ll say something along the lines of ‘I don’t really know’.
It’s not as if there any genuine Bermuda Triangle or Bigfoot-type stories from Aylesbury, but there is a palpable sense of strangeness. Add that to historical instances of local witchcraft and secret societies like The Hellfire Club and you get a mixture of things that suggest reality could easily be skewed in the area anyway.
Avoiding spoilers, how do you see The Vale developing? Are there any plans you can reveal to us about what Jan Czernowicz is soon to undergo or the wider mythology of the series?
The Vale is a dense little tale for its size, one that suggests much from the off.
Each issue will venture into new towns around Home Counties, each with a unique pub with a hint of the strange and revelations about the characters. Jan and Shugg both have a lot to go through before the end, but all I’ll say at the moment is the escalation of events is inevitable due to the world that shaped them. Their resolution, though, is referenced and hinted at throughout.
Thanks to Brett for agreeing to this interview. Our review of the first two issues of The Vale will be out tomorrow.