Jed Mercurio & Wesley Robins: Writer & Illustrator of graphic novel Ascent

Writer Jed Mercurio and illustrator Wesley Robins are the creators of the new Jonathan Cape graphic novel Ascent, which follows the story of one man’s ambitious journey through flight and aviation. Jed’s first novel, Bodies, was chosen by the Guardian as one of the five best debuts of 2002. Wesley is also a winner of the Macmillan prize for children’s book illustration.

Ascent was published in 2007 as a fiction novel by Mercurio. He then collaborated with Robins on the text to create a graphic novel. The main character, Yefgenii Yeremin, was raised in an orphanage, but rises above the harsh conditions of his background to become one of the most prominent Soviet fighter pilots in history. But in the Korean war, the Soviet Union’s involvement must be kept secret, so Yeremin is exiled to an Arctic base. His name is erased and his identity wiped clean. He lives as a ghost, a shadow of his former heroic victories… until the day he is called back for one final mission.

With Jed Mercurio

What is your earliest childhood memory?
When I was a toddler, I saw a gigantic industrial digger. I was so impressed that apparently I talked about it for years afterwards.

What makes you happy?
Getting the job done well.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I was a practising hospital doctor when my first scripts got produced (Cardiac Arrest). Later I was also going through a selection process for the Army Air Corps. Instead I decided to take a sabbatical to concentrate full time on writing – fifteen years later, I’m still on it.

How much of your writing is drawn from life and how much from your imagination?
I’m lucky to have had a lot of inspiring life experiences (medicine, the RAF), but for me storytelling is still primarily an act of imagination.

What are you reading at the moment?
Point Omega by Don DeLillo

What advice would you give to a first time writer?
To write a lot and read a lot.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Golf – it makes me feel like such a middle-class suburban cliché.

How do you relax?
I love sport, to watch, but especially to play – football, tennis and golf.

What’s the worst job you’ve had?
I’ve been lucky to do brilliant jobs – hospital doctor, RAF officer and writing. The only bad one I’ve ever had was a summer job in a factory while at Medical School. It was hard, repetitive and tiring, apart from the day when the welder was off sick and they asked me to step in.

What is the most important thing life has taught you?
Take-offs are optional, landings are mandatory.

First page of Ascent

With Jed Mercurio and Wesley Robins

What is your favourite comic book or graphic novel?

JED: I was a huge Marvel fan as a kid. I loved the Incredible Hulk. My favourite graphic novel is Watchmen.

WES: Maybe When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs. Or Maus by Art Spiegelman, or Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia, plus anything by Seth. Don’t think I can pick a favourite!

Which comic book author/artist is underrated or deserves to be better-known?

JED: Wesley Robins.

WES: Really like Jon McNaught’s work at the moment – very atmospheric and has a lovely limited palette. 

What made you decide to work together on Ascent?

JED: I was looking for a fresh artistic talent for the book and viewed art school graduate shows. Wesley’s work really stood out. I emailed him and over a Starbuck’s persuaded him to draw an audition page for the book.

WES: Jed was looking to turn his original book into a graphic novel and had been going around different end of year shows at different uni’s. I was one of a few people asked if I’d like to submit some spreads of the book – examples of how I would interpret it. After a short selection process, I was the last one left!

Wesley, what’s your working background?

WES: This is my first graphic novel, and was also my first big commission. Previously at uni, I had done a lot of children’s work and some print (particularly etching) and reportage, so I liked and continue to like to cross over a bit, and draw on different areas and working methods.

How do you collaborate on turning Jed’s novel into graphic fiction?

JED: Wes did the hard part. I’d already done the original novel – two years of writing and research. I abridged it into script form, chapter by chapter. Wes emailed me rough panels, I’d give notes, he’d flesh them out, I’d give more notes, and then we’d move on to the next chapter. Although we talked on the phone a few times, we didn’t meet again until the book was finished.

WES: Basically Jed would provide me with a script – an already edited down version of the book. I would then go over it, rough out the corresponding pages to get an idea of the pacing and compositions etc. I’d send them over to Jed to see what he thought – they’d be a bit of a discussion back and forth before okaying them, and then I’d move on to the finals.

What’s the best thing about working in collaboration?

JED: TV is highly collaborative while novel writing feels an isolated process. For me, this project struck a happy medium.

WES: Being able to talk over ideas with someone, getting continuous feedback. It’s always nicer to share your work as you go along with someone, rather than being completely closed off.

And the worst?

JED: Wesley was so enthusiastic and turned in such brilliant art that there wasn’t a bad moment at all. I enjoyed every minute.

WES: I don’t think there is. It’s easy if you’re working on your own to get a bit cut off from the rest of the world in your own little vision. It might be OK if you’re working on your own story, and if you have a particular direction you’re determined to take and don’t want to compromise, but in this case that didn’t apply.

What’s the next project?

JED: We’ve talked to the publisher about another graphic novel but nothing’s confirmed yet. I’d love to work with Wes again but I’m worried we won’t be able to afford him now!

WES: I have recently finished a line of kids’ travel booklets, and have just started on a set of paper toys for children.

And finally… pitch us a new superhero in 50 words (and a sketch if possible)!

JED: I think I’ll delegate that one to Wes!

WES: Might have to get back to you on that! Though it would probably be some rubbish power, something mundane like ‘cat litter guy’, or ‘loose change boy’.

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