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An Unflinching Picture of the London East End: In Conversation with “The Glass Wall’s” William Robertson and Yulia Lapko

The Glass Wall looks to be in equal parts compelling and a reflection of familiar worlds of modern parties and friends: asking age-old questions of morality in the immediately recognisable setting of the millennial London East End. Currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, we caught up with writer William Robertson and artist Yulia Lapko to talk more about the upcoming graphic novel.

A Place To Hang Your Cape: What is the story in The Glass Wall? Why did you want to tell this story?

William Robertson: The Glass Wall is a search for meaning beyond hedonism. It’s about the need we all share for some kind of moral guidance. I think a lot of us have a fear of being alone with ourselves. Of holding up a mirror and asking, “Am I a good enough person?” It’s this fear, and the methods we employ to avoid having to face it, that I was interested in.

So I started by looking into ideas about the conscience. I discovered people like Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Butler and John Henry Newman, whose theories were rooted in religion. And on the flip side you’ve got people like Erich Fromm and Sigmund Freud, who argued that the conscience is a human invention constructed by external authorities.

The source of guilt arising from the conflict between what we ought to do and what we actually do. Each character in The Glass Wall is striving in their own way for the freedom from this guilt. These were the stories I wanted to tell.

AP2HYC: What can you tell us about Lucian and his narrative specifically?

Robertson: Lucian is a bit lost, a bit aimless. Lacking something. But what? The title of the comic alludes to his ongoing struggle, owing to an acute, though never explicated, depersonalisation disorder, to find meaning in a world from which he feels increasingly dissociated. Not quite part of a scene, while not entirely divorced from it, he’s a passive observer of, rather than an active participator in, whatever terrible thing is happening around him. He’s a constant witness, to paraphrase Palahniuk. A fly on the glass wall.

Another theme of the story is the limits of moral law as a universal set of rules. A fun way to examine this was to drop Lucian into scenarios and dilemmas from which there was no easy way out. I wanted to put him through the wringer, which I guess is kinda sadistic! But it’s a good way to test the mettle of a character. He begins his journey believing there is no meaning to life beyond that which he gives it, but ends it feeling that, maybe, there is something more. Some unknowable higher power.

AP2HYC: With a ‘real-life’ comic like this, one of the biggest challenges can sometimes be representing a setting that’s familiar to the audience. What is the version of London we’ll see in The Glass Wall? What sort of characters do we have?

Yulia Lapko: This was a challenge for me, given that I don’t live in the UK! But I’ve been there many times. Once, when the comic was still in progress, William and I dedicated a day to “The Glass Wall tour”, visiting places and venues depicted in the story so I could take some reference photos. Was it helpful? Not particularly. Because later that evening I went out and lost my phone and all the photos on it! Still, it was a good day. And somehow I managed to capture the essence of the city pretty well, William and other Londoners assuring me it was on point.

Robertson: Not quite a roman-à-clef, but not entirely fictional (which scenes fall where I’ll leave to the readers’ imaginations), The Glass Wall formed around the tradition of write what you know. At the time I was kind of a drifter. I didn’t have an address, so I was partying pretty hard and crashing at strangers’ houses often. I was reliant on others for a roof over my head. When I couldn’t find one, I’d spend the night wandering around east London until sunrise. It’s a good way to get to know the darker side of a place. Not to mention the characters stalking its fringes. It was Alan Moore who said, “There is no substitute for practical experience, and if you want to write about people you ought to put down that comic book and go out and meet some of them rather than studying the way that Stan Lee or Chris Claremont depict people.”

The Glass Wall is set against the hedonistic backdrop of a city close to anomie. It follows a circle of outsiders who don’t seem to like one another but who regardless always end up at the same parties. I made the mistake of telling some friends that they had shaped a few characters, and as a result they didn’t speak to me for months. They were like, “Seriously? This is how you see us?!” You don’t write to make friends. But evidently I write to lose the friends I have.

Anyway, by the end the characters had developed their own unique identities, and no longer resembled the people who had initially inspired them, who are all far more redeemable and lovely! Still, where there’s smoke…

AP2HYC: Were there any unexpected advantages – or challenges – with the move from a novel to a graphic novel? Does that affect the story you’re telling?

Lapko: The main advantage was that the story already existed in the form of William’s novel, and I thought it would be a shame not to use such great material. The whole thing was an experiment and a first for both of us, which was in itself a challenge. I’m an artist, not a writer. I “think” with a pen. So it was easier for me to create a “script” in the form of a storyboard. That’s how it began, with images. I sketched a few pages to see if they worked in this format. Once we realised they did, we made a plan, plotting key scenes and mapping their chronology.

Robertson: The biggest challenge for me was letting go of so much of the novel. Secondary characters were forsaken, plot points abandoned, dozens of scenes cut. Yulia did a great job in helping me shuffle around the narrative and focus on the major plotlines – namely Lucian’s involvement in both Richard’s and Pandora’s stories. And consequently the comic is more fast pace and more tautly written, while retaining much of the novel’s substance.

AP2HYC: Can you please tell us a bit about the creative team on the book?

Lapko: William and I met online 10 years ago over a mutual love of music, art and film. It was around this time he started writing The Glass Wall novel. We talked about that book a lot while it was in progress, and watching it develop made me feel connected to it. I’d been drawing since early childhood, but for some reason never took it seriously enough. It wasn’t until one evening when William and I were hanging out, listening to music, that I decided on a whim to draw a hundred little sketches.

William thought they were good and saved some of them. He suggested I start taking drawing seriously, so I thought I’d give it a shot. A couple of years later I pitched him the idea of adapting The Glass Wall into a graphic novel. And the rest is history.

Will you be reading The Glass Wall, and have you checked out the Kickstarter? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!

About the author

Matthew Smith