Indie creator Tim Bird makes really beautiful comics about place and people, and his latest offering, The Great North Wood, is an absolute treat. Guided by a fox, Tim take us on a 68-page trip through the ancient woodland that once covered South London before being mostly destroyed to make way for the city. Its name lives on in places like Forest Hill, Honor Oak, and Norwood, but only spare trees and folktales remain. It’s a really spectacular comic, a must-read for anyone with an interest in London, psychogeography, trees, folklore, history, illustration, or comics. Actually, it’s a just must-read for anyone!
We caught up with Tim ahead of publication to talk about South London folklore and what it takes to make a comic…
As well as being insanely good-looking, The Great North Wood gives us a super interesting history of South East London topography. Where did you go /what kinds of things did you read to research this history?
The idea to write about the Great North Wood came from walking through Sydenham Hill Woods, near where I live. One day, a group called The Friends of the Great North Wood had an open day and I picked up some leaflets about the history of the area. This led me to hunt down more local history books including the magnificently titled The Great North Wood With A Geological, Topographical and Historical description of Upper, West & South Norwood, In The County Of Surrey, By J. Corbet Anderson. I also read some books about forests and folklore – Gossip From The Forest by Sara Maitland and The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous were two that proved very useful. I really enjoy the research part of writing – just gathering information and seeing where it leads.
How long did the comic take to finish overall?
I’ve moved around various places in South East London, and have enjoyed walking in Sydenham Hill Woods throughout that time. The idea to write about the history of the area developed gradually, but I only really started working on it properly last year. Once I’d begun, the comic took about six months to complete, but that’s fitting in drawing around childcare and other commitments, so it was relatively quick.
Can you give us a peek into your process and how this particular comic came into being?
I’m not very patient when it comes to writing. I should write a full script and draw thumbnails of each page before I start work on the final artwork, but I tend to plan a few pages ahead and then jump into the drawing. I have a rough idea of where everything’s going, but I like to keep my creative process quite loose. I keep changing what materials I use when I draw comics – for this one I used pencil, and coloured it digitally. I’m lucky that I’ve worked with Avery Hill Publishing on a number of projects previously, so once I’d pitched the idea to them, they were happy for me to get on with the book.
One of the things I really love about The Great North Wood is that it’s full of London folk tales. I especially enjoyed the stories of Gipsy Hill and Ned Righteous. Where did you come across these stories?
London Lore by Steve Roud was a great source of information and inspiration. Its full of really interesting folk tales from all across London. Also – the South East London Folklore Society have a good website that gave me lots of ideas.
I read the comic almost as a love-letter to South London. How long have you lived there, and what’s your absolute favourite South London spot?
When I first moved to London I lived in Golders Green in north London, but quickly came to see the light and moved south of the river in 2006. Since then I’ve moved around a bit – Tulse Hill, Herne Hill, Dulwich, and now Sydenham. I really love walking through Sydenham Hill Woods. It really feels like escaping from the city, despite it being just off the south circular. Once you’ve walked a few minutes away from the road, the noise of the city disappears and the atmosphere changes – its like stepping back in time.
Your previous comics — Grey Area: From the City to the Sea & Grey Area: Our Town — also focus on psychogeography. As your work shows, it’s a subject that really suits the comic book medium! What comes first for you – the idea or the artwork, or is it a combination of the two?
For me, the idea comes first. I wanted to write a comic about south-east London for a while, and once I’d decided to focus on the Great North Wood and folklore related to forests, the idea developed from there. I normally have a few ideas for the artwork – key scenes or pages – that get fixed early on, but a lot of the artwork evolves naturally as I write the script.
Who are your comic book heroes and what kind of stuff do you read?
Growing up I was massively in to Tintin. I remember reading the comics with my dad when I was really little – he explained how the speech bubbles worked, and how you could tell what Snowy the dog was thinking because he had thought bubbles. I collected the whole series and read them over and over. Then I drifted away from comics as a teenager – I got into music instead. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I got back into comics through the American independent artists like Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware. These days I try and read as big a variety of comics as possible. Its good to go to comics fairs and buy things that are being self-published directly from the creators. Two of my favourite creators right now are Simon Moreton and Jon McNaught.
What’s next? Do you have any more projects in the pipeline?
I have a few ideas, but nothing certain yet. I think it’ll be a shorter comic that I’ll self- publish and try and sell at comics fairs. I like the immediacy, the freedom and the connection with readers that comes with doing-it-yourself.
Thanks so much Tim!
The Great North Wood will be available to buy from comic stores and bookshops from 7 June 2018 (9781910395363, £9.99, Paperback)
And while you’re here, why not check out Tim’s other comics from Avery Hill:
Grey Area – Our Town ( 9781910395240, £7.00, Paperback)
Grey Area – from the City to the Sea (9781910395059, £7.00, Paperback)