Adam Murphy’s series ‘CorpseTalk’ has been the heart of The Phoenix Magazine ever since it first launched. A long-running strip in which Murphy – acting as interviewer within his own strip – speaks to a number of deceased historical figures about their lives, the first 33 editions have now been collected for “The Phoenix Presents: CorpseTalk”.
History was always the lesson where somebody with a beard brought out a heavy hardback book, dropped it on the table in front of you, and asked you to recite the history of cavalier helmets to the rest of class. Well… in my experience it was, anyway. It’s kinda boring when it’s presented poorly – but when somebody gets properly into the heart of it, it can suddenly become one of the most exciting and interesting subjects around.
Which is why CorpseTalk has been such a success. A little in line with the Horrible Histories series, Corpse Talk doesn’t gloss over the fiddly (and therefore interesting) bits of history. When he sits down to interview people like Shakespeare, Boudicca, or Genghis Khan, Murphy properly goes into their lives – and especially the really good bits.
Which is why I was so keen to talk to Adam about the series! And, happily, he’s kindly agreed to do just that for The Spire! Read on to find out more about the origins of CorpseTalk, how the series has come together over the years – and why Genghis Khan will never be invited back…
Steve: When did you start doing CorpseTalk? Was it something you’d worked on, or just thought about, prior to The Phoenix?
Adam: The Phoenix approached me because they knew I could do non-fiction (I had done some work that didn’t get published for the short-lived DFC) and they wanted a non-fiction feature for the magazine. They originally wanted it to be about current, modern famous people. I did a couple of test runs, and very quickly realised that it was going to get my ass sued. That’s when I realised it had to be about dead people – they can’t complain.
That was the initial impetus, but actually, the key that makes it really work, that it’s me as the interviewer and digging up corpses – that was my wife’s genius idea.
Steve: How do you plan each strip? Do you improvise a conversation and see where it leads, or do you work out a final joke and work your way to it, or anything like that?
Adam: I do a lot of research then do lots of drafts. Lots and lots of drafts… Basically, the first drafts are just trying to figure out what order to present the information in. What the reader needs to know early on in order to make sense of what happens later, what sort of contextual information do I need – that sort of stuff. And then I just revise and revise and chat it over with my wife – see what she laughs at and what she thinks is boring.
It takes a lot of reworking because the whole thing is such a house of cards – every panel is totally dependent on all the others. And it’s really only towards the end, the last draft or so, that I think the proper shape of it starts to emerge and that’s when jokes start to pop up and I start to see “Oh you can do something funny there” or “You need a joke here – can you think of something?”
Steve: Do you feel that there’s been a development over the years, in the way the strip is styled? Has ‘Adam’ eased into his role as an interviewer, so to speak?
Adam: I’ve certainly been through different drawing processes – so the look of it has changed. Obviously the move from one page to two pages made a big difference in terms of having space, but also for a while, I was trying to do as much of the drawing straight ahead with no pencilling as possible. Partly for speed and partly for the increased expressivity of it. But now I pencil everything, but I know when I really need to pencil in detail and where I can do it more quickly and keep it loose.
In terms of the writing and the interviewer persona, I’m not sure…I think yeah, maybe there is a more consistent approach now that when I started. But each person is so different, and the demands of their unique story are so different, that it really feels like re-inventing the wheel each time.
Steve: How much research do you typically do for each strip?
Adam: Too much! Ha! That’s the short answer. Usually I spend about 2-3 hours just reading and gleaning what I can until I have a good sense of the person, who they are and what they’re about. But then, I’ll often find that while I’m doing the early drafts, that there extra are bits that I need; if I’m not convinced that I’ve got the whole story or I need to check my facts, so that usually takes up a few extra hours of going back and forth. But that’s nothing compared with the hours of revisions of the script drafts – it’s that, rather than the research, that takes the time.
Steve: Is it easy to get lost in the story sometimes, and find you’ve spent far too long going into depth on it – and you have to whittle down? How do you pick the element of somebody’s life story which fits best into the comic format?
Adam: It’s very easy to get lost in the research and the drafts, but it’s also unavoidable to a certain extent. I mean I think I could do it faster if I was more accepting of how shitty the first drafts are, no I’d spend less time staring into space agonising that it’s not working and this, finally, is going to be the one that kills me. But it’s unavoidable that it needs to go through a bunch of drafts.
I think in terms of the length of it, I very rarely end up with a lot more material than I need. Because I script it using post-its, one post-it for each panel, and I know how many panels are going to be on a page, so as I’m working, I can see very quickly if I’m using up too much space. And I’ll kind of work on that as I’m going.
Nowadays, I tend to end up with roughly the right amount of material by the end of any draft. So it’s more just a question of shaping. By shaping, I mean, expanding on the bits that need more explanation or are more interesting and cutting the bits…you very quickly see the bits that are not germane to the whole arc of the story.
Steve: Are there any characters you’d want to bring back at some point?
Adam: Yeah, all of them! Or a lot of them anyway. Especially with the early ones where I only had one page. Like I only had one page to do Genghis Khan. And that guy’s life is epic! There’s all sorts of interesting information that’s come out reasonably recently – recent scholarship on Mongols, and there’s all sorts of just bizarre moral quandaries to think about in terms of his impact in history and the vast amount of people killed and lives destroyed by him. And I have that sort of reaction to almost everyone.
But I tend to think I would love to do a full-length, book length, comic biography of a person and really get into all the juicy detail. But that’s a totally different beast – I think what makes CorpseTalk work is the format. It’s so tight and pared down so there’s no waffle, no novelization, none of all that stuff I’d love to get into in a book.
And I think at the moment, it’s just a basic rule of CorpseTalk that there aren’t repeat guests, so we don’t bring people back. It’s hard for me to see how that would be viable in the format. Plus there are so many people we haven’t done that are just so fascinating!
Steve: How do you decide which ‘guests’ you want to have appear in the series? Do you have a list of possibilities which you add to whenever a name comes to you?
Adam: Yeah, basically. But we’re now at the stage where we’ve sent out calls for requests from kids and we have a HUGE list of probably like 3 or 4 years’ worth of suggestions. I’ll add my own suggestions to that and then we’ll sit and look at the balance of people – Do we have a good balance of different types of people? Basically, not all warrior kings (there are an awful lot of those guys).
Do we have enough artists, scientists etc. Do we have a good balance of men and women? Do we have a good balance of famous people and relatively obscure ones? Then I’ll just sit and plough through the list for a few months and then come back and fine-tune it again.
Steve: Are there any people you’d like to include, but aren’t well known enough to all ages? Or do you actively look sometimes to feature characters who are new to your readers?
Adam: Yeah, we definitely want to feature people that kids, and adults, haven’t heard of. So long as people come out at the end of it saying ‘Wow! That was really cool!’ It doesn’t matter whether they’re famous or not. Or known to the readers or not known. But I do think we need to balance it. There needs to be enough famous people in there to keep the recognition up…
Steve: Do you get many requests for interviewees to feature? Have you ever taken one and put them into a strip?
Adam: Yes! We get loads! We now have a list that will easily last me 3-4 years. Most of the strips have been requests. It’s quite rare that I’ll just do one that I want to do.
Steve: Is the plan to continue doing CorpseTalk for as long as you want? Do you have the planned out far into the future?
Adam: Yeah! I’m still loving it! So long as kids are still loving it, I want to keep doing it. There’s really no shortage of people to dig up! But I wouldn’t say it’s planned out. Every few months we need to revise the order of people. But there’s so many awesome guests already on the list and there’s no shortage of dead people.
Steve: What else are you working on at the moment? I know you launched ‘Fever Dreams’ (which is slightly more adult!) last year. Do you have anything else in the works right now that you can tell people about?
Adam: Yes! I’m a part of ‘IDP’, which is a collaborative graphic novel that’s commissioned by the Edinburgh Book Festival, published by Freight, and launching at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August this year.
It’s speculative science-fiction, set in the near future, following a massive global-warming related flood. It was a really interesting project because the first and last chapters carry the main story, but then other authors and artists, like me, were asked to do the middle chapters spinning off at different tangents but within the same world.
I did a chapter on the back story of the main characters; how they met and the tensions between them, as well as digging into some of the political/philosophical underpinnings of the world. It was an interesting challenge and a great learning experimenter, and I’m very proud of the chapter that I’ve churned out. I think it’s going to be an amazing book! That’s the biggest thing that’s coming out in the near future.
Plus I’m working away on my other ongoing series for The Phoenix: Lost Tales, which adapts unusual or lesser known folk tales from around the world. I have a fantastic one that I’m finishing up just now – a folk-tale from Japan that I remember loving when I was a kid. They tend to slot in as and when I have time, so that’ll be done when it’s done
Plus of course the CorpseTalk Book: Season 1 has just come out! It is the first 33 episodes of CorpseTalk, plus a bunch of cool bonus facts, and features folks like Genghis Khan, Marie Antoinette, Marie Curie, Henry VIII and his six wives, William Wallace, Boudicca… It’s an amazing list of people. That’s now out from David Fickling Books.
You can get it directly from me from my website (currently running a special offer where each book comes with a free, custom watercolour of your favourite historical corpse) or from The Phoenix website, or wherever good books are sold
CorpseTalk Season 1 is out now. It’s REALLY good.