The Brunel Graphic Biography, or ‘Brunel comic’ as it became known, was a steam-powered feast of entertainment brought to you through the miracle of modern precision-engineered cartoon.
Written by Eugene Byrne and illustrated by Simon Gurr, with an introduction by Adam Hart-Davis, the comic proved to be more successful than the team could have hoped for.
Simon draws and writes comics, and creates pieces for web and print: some of his web games are live on the award-winning ARKive site and he has illustrated several books for Oxford University Press, including Arnold Bennett’s The Card and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
His published comics include The Enhancer, co-written with Peter Gurr, St. Vincent’s Rock, written by Eugene Byrne, The Day of The Triffids, serialised for newspaper by the artist and Isambard Kingdom Brunel: A Graphic History, written by Eugene Byrne.
Eugene is Consulting Editor of Venue magazine in Bristol, as well as an author of 3 novels, and freelance journalist for newspapers and magazines. Born in Ireland, Eugene grew up in Burnham-on-Sea and settled in Bristol in 1981 after seeing a mummy being dissected live on CCTV at the City Museum & Art Gallery!
He compiles Days Out West Guide for Venue magazine, is a regular contributor to BBC History magazine, as well as the Bristol Evening Post’s
“I always wanted a comic as part of the Brunel 200 celebrations. It's a good way of getting across complex ideas without necessarily dumbing down. It happened that Eugene Byrne had the same idea so we decided to collaborate. Simon was an easy choice -- we had worked with him before on The Day of the Triffids and he had done a splendid job in turning a 200 page book into 12 episodes which the Evening Post printed.
Simon and Eugene had collaborated previously on a short comic, and knew what to expect from their working relationship. They described producing the comic as a “labour of love”, and their love for Brunel and storytelling was evident through the comic’s humour and exuberant illustrations.
The brief was to produce a biography of Brunel in comic form, which would be distributed free of charge to every secondary school pupil in the Bristol area. The interest in the project was so great, that the initial print-run figure of 50,000 was increased to 136,000, and copies were circulated far wider than just schools, with large numbers being sent to Airbus and Rolls Royce. Every member of staff the University of Bristol received a copy of the comic with their pay slips.
Eugene said, “Nobody warned us that it was ever going to be read by proper historians and real engineers. That’s been very, very frightening”.
When it came to deciding on the format that the comic would take, Eugene and Simon decided early on that the comic would not be a comic in the traditional sense, and that it would comprise a combination of frames and pictures with speech bubbles, alongside some prose.
They agreed on four priorities, which would help to dictate the layout of the comic.
The first was to tell the story of Brunel in a manner which would be entertaining and amusing, holding the attention of readers, making readers laugh, cry and….wait! Thus, the story was scripted, to try to include a cliff-hanger ending at the end of every right-hand page.
Secondly, they wanted to put across as much information as possible, quickly and painlessly, whilst maintaining the balance of humour and fact. Not an easy feat when relaying information on engineering and science, and the life of Brunel in under 100 pages!
Simon Gurr reflected,
"History has been related in comic strip form since the Bayeux Tapestry, at least. With it's dramatic combination of images and dialogue, the comic is an ideal medium for emphasising the STORY in history. It doesn't have to be a dry dusty pile of names and dates, it's supposed to be about the most important and amazing things that have ever happened. By applying the unique qualities of the comic strip form to Brunel we aimed to do justice to the comedy and tragedy of his life and times."
Thirdly, the team wanted to offer challenges to those readers who wanted to accept them, adding in detail, scientific fact and complex engineering material where possible. Eugene explains,
“The hardest thing to explain in the whole book was the idea that the capacity of a ship increases as the cube of its size rather than the square i.e. why big ships are more efficient than smaller ones. I don’t imagine that more than a small percentage of the kids reading this – and not a lot more of the adults either – are going to ‘get’ this. I also don’t doubt that I could have explained it better.
But we thought it was important to have stuff like this in, in order to stretch those readers who felt up to it”.
Finally, they wanted the book to be a ‘flag-waver’ for Bristol, to encourage readers to form a real appreciation of Brunel and of Bristol. It was felt that if readers can feel good about the history of the city that they live in, they may be tempted to go and find out more about it.
“All in all it’s been a wonderful experience. Much harder work than either of us anticipated, but something I’m thrilled to have had the chance to do”, said Eugene.
In writing a comic about Brunel and Bristol’s history it was important to do this without ‘glossing over’ Bristol’s past and involvement in slave labour, as well as commenting on the many navvies who lost their lives working on Brunel’s ambitious projects. The 1831 riots and the merchants who ran the city at the time were also covered within the story.
In relation to this, Eugene said,
“But nonetheless, however costly they were, Brunel’s achievements were amazing, and mostly to the good. As we say right from the start, he was not a general or politician or captain of industry; he was the son of an asylum seeker whose work brought great benefits to all. That is something, which every Bristolian, native or adoptive, can be proud of.
And far as the more shameful aspects of Bristol’s history go, indeed, as far as all the rest of Bristol’s history goes, we’re hoping for the green light on another book, twice the size, which will tell the whole story of Bristol”.
And indeed, a history of Bristol in comic form is currently underway, with initial research taking place.
"I really enjoyed working on a story with such a strong local connections. When I met people in schools and libraries during the comic workshops it was clear that there is a real love of Brunel in this city, and I'm sure that contributed to the warm reception our book received. It's just nice to be involved in a project that means something to the community you live in." said Simon.
In conclusion, Eugene commented,
“Perhaps the biggest thrill so far was when
my daughter, who is 13, came home from school on the day it was handed
out to all her classmates and reported that they were all reading it
and laughing on the school bus. This is probably the last time for many
years (if ever) when her embarrassing old man has been cool."